Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Preview: The Terracotta Army

Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first Emperor, ruler of the Qin dynasty from 221 to 210BC, was a bit of a dick. He burnt the nation's books and buried alive dissenting scholars, he tortured and murdered rivals and their families, he sent thousands or even millions to their deaths on his various building projects, and untold numbers died as a result of his endless wars to conquer and subjugate. Plus he was big and fat, and no doubt had a really annoying laugh.

But annoyingly for all his many victims and detractors, he was also brilliant, and his actions completely shaped the China we know and love. He unified it for a start, defeating all his rivals in a remarkably short space of time, standardised the written language as well as weights, measurements and currencies, built roads and infrastructure and even a good portion of the early Great Wall, oversaw a brutally efficient army with advanced and sophisticated weaponry, and set up an extensive legal system. And although obsessed with immortality, he spent decades and a quite astonishing amount of manpower building himself a vast underground mausoleum complex.

The main legacy of this tomb was found, entirely by accident, by some farmers in March 1974. Shaanxi province in China had been hit by drought, making life even more difficult for the villagers in Litong District within the midst of the Cultural Revolution after a couple of decades of insane Maoist Communism. Digging extra deep one day, around five metres, in the hope of finding some water to save their crops, the farmers instead found a lifesize pottery head. Dutifully they informed the authorities and further digging revealed the pottery head was attached to a pottery body, and the pottery body was not alone, not by a long shot. It was accompanied by thousands and thousands of other lifesize pottery soldiers. Soon monickered the Terracotta Army, it was probably the archaeological discovery of the 20th Century, and came about entirely due to a few thirsty farmers.

Despite the Cultural Revolution raging, a period in which untold amounts of precious artefacts and priceless historical treasures were deliberately destroyed in the distorted name of progress, the sheer "wow" factor of the Terracotta Army ensured its careful handling. Over 8000 pottery soldiers, 700 horses and 130 chariots in four pits which would have required the movement of 70,000 cubic metres of earth moved - that's the equivalent of 5500 loads of modern lorries. The scale was enormous, and the discovery had been entirely unanticipated with no hints appearing anywhere in existing historical records. It's not unlike you popped into your back garden to dig up some petunias and ended up unearthing a vast and unknown Roman temple.

The Terracotta Army are just part of a much larger tomb complex, which so far remains untouched until better methods of excavation and preservation are developed - the Chinese authorities are treading very carefully here. Indeed, only a little over a thousand pottery soldiers have been fully revealed so far, the large bulk during the first dig between 1975 and 1984. These clay soldiers, all brightly painted, turned an oxidised grey quickly after being exposed to air; that is, the Terracotta Army you know from photos are a recently discoloured version and until being discovered were vividly coloured. New methods of preserving the colour are being developed, but these are pretty painstaking, and the fact that much of the pottery models are in pieces and need to be put together like an elaborate jigsaw means it will be several decades before the four pits full of pottery, not to mention the entire extended burial tomb, are revealed and displayed. On display now, while still incredible, is only a fraction of the entire structure, and the full thing may never be seen in our lifetime. This is a Wonder in progress.

It's pretty clear Qin Shi Huangdi wasn't an emperor to do things by half. Becoming emperor at age 13, he immediately set to work on his tomb, which even by modern teenage standards is odd behaviour for a boy at an age more suited for sitting in the bathroom thinking about boobies. The Terracotta Army is thought to have been started about twenty years into ongoing tomb work, during an intensified phase of activity involving 700,000 workers, although this figure is from a Chinese historian born decades after Shi Huangdi's death. Regardless of exactly when and how many were on site, the undertaking was enormous - to build an army of clay soldiers to defend the emperor in the afterlife. I can just imagine his official when hearing and relaying this new order from the emperor: "You'll never guess what he wants us to do now..."

Of course, as no records exist, we must simply guess as to whose idea the whole thing was, whether the emperor announcing yet another extension to his tomb, or various advisors keen to foster favour. They certainly wanted it done properly - each soldier of the Terracotta Army is unique, at least at first glance. This once led to speculation that each clay soldier was modelled on a real person, but further inspection has revealed that there are only eight basic face types, thus likely only eight molds. This is a very early example, and probably the first, of the assembly line process, not seen again for pretty much 2000 years. After the head was made, artisans then added individual features such as hair and beards, and this molding-then-sculpting process for the body and the clothes was repeated. Contrary to the uniform look of modern soldiers, Qin soldiers supplied their own clothes and could apparently dress as they liked, and so the Terracotta Army were painted in a wide range of colours, with a variety of clothing. Finally, this huge clay army were given real weapons - crossbows, swords, axes and bows - although unlike the resilient pottery bodies, these weapons have largely decayed, with the exception of the bronze swords.

The Terracotta Army, standing still, buried underground for over 2000 years, did their job manfully, and even today protect the first Emperor of China against invaders, as the archaeological focus is currently on very slowly digging them all up before tackling the bigger unknown of his underground tomb. They also help him attain some kind of immortality, remaining alive in the consciousness of China and the greater world. However, I don't really think it was the kind of immortality Qin Shi Huangdi was after. Desperate for a long life, he experimented with all kinds of unlikely potions and drugs, which included the drinking of liquid mercury, generally considered by modern standards as a "bad idea". And thus it was very possibly these elixirs of life that led to his death at age 49 during a tour of Eastern China.

Death didn't stop him, however, at least for a while, as he continued on with his tour despite this unfortunate hitch. His Prime Minister panicked that news of his death might trigger the collapse of the empire, so his trusty wagon kept going, and went around the realm until returning to the capital two months later. Unfortunately, being summer, his bloated and decaying corpse soon began to smell very badly and attracted lots of flies, so the next step was to deftly cover this up by always having a couple of carts of rotting fish following the royal wagon. It must have been a curious sight for any welcoming crowds. The Prime Minister was right though, as within three years of his death the empire had collapsed.

The Terracotta Army is often dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" (along with many, many other things, including the Banaue Rice Terraces, King Kong, the International Space Station, and pretty much anything that wants to drum up publicity for itself) and is one I'm looking forward to seeing. It's a little different from the traditional perception of a Wonder; rather than being a monumental building, it's a vast array of still and silent men. As said, it's a long-term project to excavate the whole lot, so what I'm seeing is only the beginning.

I'll be visiting the Terracotta Army in February or March and will give a fuller report of its history as well as my own impressions then.

Reviewed 24th March 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. Though you fail to mention the Italian emperor who created a similar army as a tribute, built on the site of his favourite bakery. It's called the Panacotta Army.


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