By the time I decided write The Emperor’s Tomb I had penned books dealing with France (The Templar Legacy and The Paris Vendetta), the Sinai (The Alexandria Link), Italy (The Venetian Betrayal), and Antarctica (The Charlemagne Pursuit). Dispatching Malone to China was a big step. This would be Cotton's first foray to the Far East and, for me, my first look at an area of the world I knew little about.
So I did what I always do.
I hit the books, finding about 350 sources and reading extensively about the 5000-plus year history of China. Most of those sources I bought at a massive used bookstore in Jacksonville, Florida called the Chamblin Bookmine. I've research all of my novels there, buying several hundred books, then returning them when done for a credit, starting over again for the next story.
China is an incredible place, varied in geography and culture, stretching more than 3000 miles east to west. It contains two of the world’s great deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan, and some of the highest mountains on the planet. Most impressive, 1.3 billion people live there, making it the most populous place in the world. But despite all of that, the country remains tremendously fragile, its political culture volatile and unpredictable, the whole thing bound together by force and fear.
I discovered that well over half of the world’s innovations originated there. Things like printing, the zero, the compass, the stirrup, the abacus, the seismograph, the rudder, the parachute, and masts and sails. The list is huge. But, because of the country’s isolation and the tendency of one emperor to eradicate all vestiges of the dynasty that came before him, the Chinese literally forgot what they’d accomplished. It's a culture that has been around for over 4000 years yet it still struggles to identify itself. Luckily, today, there is a wealth of information on both China and, particularly, Qin Shi, its First Emperor (who is the emperor in The Emperor’s Tomb). Usually, I travel to at least one location in each of the novels for on-sight research, but that was not possible with China. That trip would have taken at least 30 days, and I did not have the time to spare. A friend, Charlie Smith (the namesake of the antagonist from The Charlemagne Pursuit) made the journey, spending three weeks there. He returned with hundreds of pictures and a brain full of observations, many of which were incorporated into the novel.
The Emperor's Tomb also features a Chinese tragedy. Child stealing. Some estimate that as many as 70,000 children are stolen in China every year. Its one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys has fostered a vicious trafficking industry. Sons traditionally care for their parents and, of course, carry on the family name, so female fetuses are many times either aborted or abandoned. Incredibly, it’s illegal to abandon, steal, or sell a child in China, but not illegal to buy one. A young boy there costs around $900 U.S. That’s a lot of money considering the average Chinese worker earns only about $1700 U.S. annually. But people pay it. The government is doing some, but not nearly enough to stop it. I incorporated this reality into the novel as a way to draw attention to a problem that many westerners do not know exists.
Front and center in the novel is the First Emperor's tomb itself, which has stood in central China for over 2200 years. It was once the size of the pyramid at Giza in Egypt, but erosion has taken a toll. It took thousands of men over 12 years to complete the massive underground palace complex where Qin Shi was buried. His body still rests beneath the mound. The tomb itself is the size of a football field, topped by a jeweled ceiling representative of stars and a floor that depicts his empire in three dimensions including mountains, villages, roads, and rivers, lakes, and oceans fashioned of mercury. It has remained unexplored, as no Chinese emperor or government has ever allowed anyone inside. The only written account of the interior was penned 2000 years ago. A kilometer away stands the terracotta army—an amazing collection of 8000 unique soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, all arrayed in tight battle-formation. That area is open to the public and its museum complex is extensively visited (and featured in the novel). Interestingly, when the terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974, no one had any idea that they were there.
Remember that practice of purging the national memory? The emperors who came after Qin Shi made sure that every detail of his existence was forgotten, including the buried army.
Three other uniquely Chinese concepts are present in The Emperor's Tomb.
During my research I came across an ancient brotherhood, begun over 3000 years ago, called the Ba. It sprang out of the Legalist movement, a political philosophy which emphasizes a central government made strong through the use of force and fear (another one of those Chinese inventions was the concept of totalitarianism). The Ba encompassed followers of Legalism, headed by a single man known as the Hegemon. Confucianism is the counter to Legalism. That philosophy came along 2500 years ago and stressed the willing obedience of the people from a compassionate, fair, and benevolent government. Both philosophies stress a strong central authority, but they achieve that end through radically different means. This debate, Legalism versus Confucianism, lies at the heart of Chinese politics. Even now, with a communist—which is to say, Legalist—regime in control, Confucianism is on the rise. I wanted to explore these concepts and educate western readers on their importance.
I learned a lot about eunuchs and the huge role they played in Chinese history. They began as mere palace attendants, and their mistreatment was common. For example, each time they encountered a member of the imperial family they had to debase themselves. Early in life they realized that they could never be venerated as scholars or statesman. Their ability to survive, once their services were no longer needed, depended on how much wealth they could secretly amass. To acquire that, they had to stay in close proximity to authority. So keeping themselves in good graces with their patrons, and keeping their patrons in power, became their primary focus. Many emperors became utterly dependent on their services, and the eunuchs essentially became surrogate rulers. The vast majority were corrupt and inept, but some achieved great stature. One invented paper. Another became the father of Chinese history. Zheng He rose to be the greatest sailor China ever produced, building a 15th century fleet that explored the world. When the Ming Dynasty fell in the 17th century, 100,000 eunuchs were forced from the capital. They were supposedly eradicated in the early 20th century but, for The Emperor's Tomb, I resurrected them.
Finally, the most fascinating thing I encountered concerned oil (which is at the heart of The Emperor's Tomb). I never realized that the concept of ‘fossil fuel’ is not a proven theory. The idea that oil originates from decayed organic material—such as plants and animals, including dinosaurs—was conceived in 1757 by a Russian scientist named Mikhail Lomonosov. There is no proof that oil is solely biotic in origin. In fact, the Russians firmly insist that oil is abiotic—that it originates from deep within the earth, the result of natural geological processes. The implications from this are enormous. Biotic oil is finite, while abiotic oil is potentially limitless. The Russians have long believed in abiotic oil, discovering reserves far deeper than where any biotic oil could possibly lay. Thankfully, abiotic oil can be identified thanks to diamondoids which exist within it. These microscopic crystals can only be formed deep in the earth, where great heat and pressure exist, far away from where any fossil fuels might be. Which one of these theories is correct? That's impossible to say. But the whole idea is intriguing.
The Emperor's Tomb is a grand adventure, one Cotton Malone will not soon forget. Coming up next for Cotton (releasing in the United States on May 17, 2011) is his first American exploit. Cotton returns home to the United States to deal with an obscure clause in the Constitution (that would shock Americans), a code from Thomas Jefferson (that's real), and some modern day domestic pirates. Then, Cotton is going to take 2012 off and I'm writing a stand alone thriller. Same kind of thing --- history, secrets, conspiracies, action, adventure --- but with a new set of characters with whole new motivations. It's a great story that deals with something really interesting from the past that no one has ever dealt with in fiction before. Cotton returns in 2012 with a new story involving his son, Gary.
So that's it for now.
Enjoy The Emperor's Tomb.
© Steve Berry May 2011
Published in the UK on 14th April 2011 Hodder Stoughton