Tuesday, 20 March 2012

20. Wonder: The Terracotta Army

(For the Terracotta Army preview, please click here.)

Spare a thought for Sima Qian. Sima Qian was a historian who lived under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty 2100 years ago, and found himself in the unfortunate position of angering the emperor. His mistake was innocent, when asked for his opinion, he simply defended the record of a renowned general who had lost a battle. There was no political agenda, he simply respected the general and believed him a brave man. Emperor Wu didn't see it this way - and sentenced Sima Qian to death. This sentence was commuted to castration, and Sima Qian lived out the rest of his days in shame as a eunuch at the emperor's command. He wrote: "There is no defilement so great as castration. One who has undergone this punishment is nowhere counted as a man... I am fit now for only guarding the palace women's apartments. I can hope for justification only after my death, when my histories become known to the world."

Under these circumstances, how much affection would you imagine Sima Qian would have felt for Emperor Wu, the man who had, almost at a whim, had caused his ultimate humiliation? Not much. But, of course, Sima Qian could never dare say a word against his ruler, or death would this time be certain. So instead - it is speculated - he turned to his histories. Sima Qian happens to be pretty much our sole historical source on the Qin dynasty and the 1st Emperor of China. All we know of this formative period in Chinese history - the era when China was unified - is due to Sima Qian's writings. In this, the 1st Emperor is a brutal megalomaniac with a pointed nose, slit eyes, pigeon breast, and without grace. The insulting descriptions go way over the top. He's an ugly, mean, despotic ruler - and an illegitimate child to boot. Someone that, by the sounds of it, Sima Qian really hates. Remind you of anyone?

So perhaps everything we know about China's 1st Emperor is wrong. Perhaps it is all just a veiled attack on Emperor Wu by a man with good reason to dislike him. Our knowledge of history sometimes hangs on single threads, if Sima Qian's thread is misleading and we cut it, what are we left with? The 1st Emperor left behind no historians of his own, or at least, no records survived. So what do we know? Well, fortunately he did leave behind a fair degree of physical evidence - a colossal, booby-trapped tomb filled with mercury and the corpses of his workers. And just a couple of miles to the east? An underground army made of pottery - the Terracotta Army.

It was this underground army, or the soldiers so far excavated, that I went to see on a couple of dull grey March days just outside the central Chinese city of Xian. When the 1st Emperor died, around 2200 years ago, he had a pretty damn large tomb ready and waiting for him. Sima Qian duly recorded this, albeit with some unlikely details such as a workforce of 700,000 required for its construction - which would have been much larger than any city in the world back then. The emperor's body was swiftly - we assume - entombed, and all work on it stopped; the tomb was sealed and forgotten, possibly with the bodies of the workers entombed inside also, so the secret of its location couldn't be revealed. Likewise too, the Terracotta Army. Upon the emperor being buried, his pottery army would have followed. Buried and forgotten about for over 2000 years: Sima Qian failed to mention this army of 8000 soldiers buried nearby, hence the considerable surprise when a handful of farmers stumbled upon it in 1974. They were looking for water, they found an antique army - not a bad day's work.

It's been almost forty years work and counting since then - like a number of Wonders, the restoration and maintenance is taking longer than the initial construction. Pay the somewhat over-the-top 150 RMB (£15) entry free to the Terracotta Army and what do you see today? An archaeological site. Wade through a quite insane amount of souvenir shops and tourist tat - pretty much an entire village of it - and pass through two separate ticket checkpoints, and you'll find yourself standing in a concrete square surrounded by a handful of chunky stone buildings. Three of these contain the pits, and inside the pits the warriors are lined up.

Or broken down. Of all the Terracotta Warriors recovered, none have been found intact. Some were in alright shape, but most were smashed to pieces. They still are - the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle is not solved overnight. It is thought that a combination of earthquakes, fire, and probably some vandalism over the many years have seen the army smashed. Dug in pits around seven metres deep, the warriors were originally lined up on a stone-paved surface in wide corridors. Between the corridors, wooden beams were laid, with mats on top, creating a chamber, before being buried. Evidence of fire suggests a degree of looting in the aftermath of the 1st Emperor's death and subsequent fall of his dynasty. The Terracotta Army were buried with real and functioning weapons, so made for fruitful raids. Fire damage to the wooden beams would have caused the roofs to cave in. This is all speculation, but seems credible. Likewise too, earthquakes: Xian is known to have suffered a massive one in 1556. The army we see now is a crushed one not fit for battle.

All this means that although the Terracotta Army is touted as being composed of around 8000 soldiers, with about 500 horses and 160 chariots, these numbers certainly aren't what you see currently. One day, but not now. Pit one is the famed pit, the largest by some measure and the one always shown in photos. Unlike the smaller pits two and three, which are contained in more atmospheric darkened rooms, pit one is basically covered by something like an aircraft hangar, filled with outside light. The crowds gather by the entrance, towards which the army faces. It's like a stand-off - crowds of tour groups versus a thousand silent warriors standing in line.

Conventional wisdom says that it is best to leave the visit to pit one to last, after the build up of pits two and three. To be honest, I don't think it matters. Pits two and three have a smaller-scale charm that isn't diminished by viewing the showpiece of pit one. What's more important is that pit one is all about the big moment of arriving, when you first walk in and behold the vast pottery army. And for this, my guide needs to be beaten about the head. I'll forgive her for her many historical and factual inaccuracies and for bossing us all like children, but I can't forgive her for the awful decision to have us enter pit one by the back entrance. Arrive by the back entrance and you just find yourself at the back of a big hangar, with a handful of clay soldiers in the process of being patched up facing away from you, and lots of earth, yet to be dug. Impact - zero. The famous excavated area full of the lined-up warriors is at the far end, the crowds gazing down upon them, and after our guide had jabbered something incomprehensible we went there, but the big moment was gone. Fortunately, the following day I entered by the proper route and got a glimmer of what should be a "wow" moment.

So the lesson here is definitely don't enter by the back entrance, and definitely don't go as part of a tour. The latter I'd pretty much apply always, and I still don't know what madness possessed me to take the tour, a temporary psychosis perhaps, or maybe the powers of suggestive hypnosis by the hostel staff. Nonetheless, despite all this, in the end it doesn't matter too much. Because, unfortunately, the Terracotta Army just isn't that much of a spectacle.

It's impressive alright, in terms of having a great story behind it, both with its associated history with the founder of China and with its entirely unexpected modern discovery, one of the greatest archaeological finds ever. Thousands of pottery warriors lost to the world for over 2000 years underground, it's amazing stuff. But as a visual spectacle it's just not there. It looks good, but it doesn't take your breath away. The problem is that it's still so unfinished. Pit 1's hangar is gigantic, and promises much, but the actual number of warriors on display is pretty low. I'm told it's about two thousand, but it seems less. They take up only around a quarter of the whole pit. It looks great in a carefully framed photo, whereby the rebuilt standing warriors fill the whole shot, but in reality the scene is more of emptiness. A bunch of warriors lined up at the front, a bunch of smashed up pieces behind, then loads of earth and as-yet unexcavated soldiers. For me, there simply wasn't as much as I thought there'd be. I expected an army, I got a battalion.

But one day... One day, when the crazy jigsaw puzzle of a million broken shards of clay can be put together, pit one will be filled and boast something like 6000 terracotta soldiers. Pit two, which is currently just smashed up remnants or still entirely covered, will have a thousand or more. Suddenly a sight that is a little underwhelming - though absolutely fascinating - will fulfil its potential and be as its creators intended. This is perhaps a Wonder for the future - and one in full Technicolor.

Because all the pictures we now see of the Terracotta Warriors are wrong. We see muddy-coloured clay soldiers, imagining that a couple of millennia underground does that to them. But in fact, the warriors were all fully coloured, and those underground remain so today. It is exposure to the air that discolours them - the ancient pigments oxidise and within a couple of hours the colour has faded. The muddy, clay-colour we're so familiar with is a modern look; for all the rest of the time, the Terracotta Army has stood guard, unseen and in colour.

It is an irony that this element - the colour - of the Terracotta Army, the part we now cannot appreciate, is the part that would have likely have taken the longest. The author John Man has estimated the entire construction of the Army including digging of the pits would have taken less than a year. But the painting - it would have taken much longer. Each colour required different pigments, and the lacquer used for a hard, protective sheen can only be obtained by bleeding the lacquer tree. 8000 warriors would have required the sap of up to 200,000 trees: entire forests might have been killed. It was a time-consuming and costly process after a construction that would likely have been so efficient.

That's because the Terracotta Army are one of the world's earliest example of a production line. Although Henry Ford and his Ford Model T seem to usually get the credit for this, the 1st Emperor and his workers were clued up to the effectiveness of mass production well before. Despite the myths of each clay soldier being unique and modelled on a real person, the reality is that each face is just one of eight different moulds, with various features added later to give the impression of individuality. Different workshops would have handled the legs, arms and torsos also. It's all just educated guesswork, but less than a thousand people might have been involved. Clay was an affordable and easy-to-use medium, and had been in use for a thousand years so was very familiar. Clay moulds had long been used for bronze figures. The construction of the Terracotta Army was most likely a fairly straightforward procedure along known techniques - it was simply the sheer scale of the job that set precedents.

It would have taken between 1200 and 2000 tonnes of clay to make the Terracotta Army, which seems quite a lot, but consider this: more clay is likely used every year to build replicas. The tourist industry built around the warriors in their pits is a highly visible one from the moment you arrive in Xian. Within Xian, warriors guard shops and hotels - our hostel had two.

On the hour-long bus journey to the archaeological site, loads of identical-looking clay soldiers stand in groups outside shops by the road. It all gets a bit crazy on the approach to the site, which requires a walk through a tourist village stuffed full with Terracotta Army souvenirs, and vendors very eager for your attention. If you don't fancy a replica soldier, no problem: there's plenty of Buddhas, plastic helicopters, or an alarming amount of dog skins on sale too. Once into the main area - the pits and museums - it doesn't stop, the prices just treble. Mini warriors, jewellery, mugs with your face as a Terracotta Warrior printed on them - archaeology has never been so... tacky.

But a photobooth in pit three does allow the opportunity for a mocked up photo of me with the warriors, so all is forgiven.

There's more. On my first day, as part of the tour group, our guide took us into what was effectively a glorified shop (it was in fact, the venue for a dire 20-minute film, surely untouched from the 1980s). In there was a celebrity - the farmer who had discovered the Terracotta Army, way back on a spring day in 1974. Now in his 80s and a tourist attraction in his own right, his life is spent behind a desk, signing books, and simply waving in a manner I can only describe as knowingly apathetic. He must surely wish he'd kept quiet and put back the pottery head he'd found, or at least not used it, as he did, as part of a scarecrow. What if he had? Would the Terracotta Army remain hidden underground? It's difficult to say. For one thing, although it was formally discovered in 1974, the existence of pottery people underground had long been known about in the area. However, the local people, being very superstitious, simply didn't want to know. This underground chamber of clay people, like a land of the dead, was considered bad luck and they kept it to themselves. Our poor farmer, confined to a life of signing books and meeting tourists, should maybe have done the same.

Like many of the best Wonders out there, many myths - or often just inaccuracies - have sprung up about the Terracotta Army, especially when being associated with the 1st Emperor's unexcavated and possible booby-trapped tomb. Our guide would have had us believe that each warrior represented a one-time real living soldier, who was killed upon his clay model being formed. The signatures that are on some of the clay blocks - they are, in fact, marks from the workshops that once created them - are supposed to be the signatures of the ill-fated soldier, who simply wanted his name remembered. Of course, given that our only source from that time, Sima Qian, never mentioned the Terracotta Army in his histories, there's always the possibility our guide might be right, but it's certainly not verifiable. A more tantalising story is that the Terracotta Warriors might not be the only ones. The pits were found over a mile from the 1st Emperor's tomb, and being at that distance and not having been mentioned in any historical accounts, were entirely unexpected. Other, smaller, pits have been found in the vicinity, with a mixture of bones and artefacts. It's clear that the 1st Emperor's tomb is vast, and much has still to be found. Could the Terracotta Army just be one of several?

There is no question that the Terracotta Army is a fascinating story. It is an amazing archaeological discovery, and there is a weird otherworldliness to the clay soldiers, standing impassively in their hundreds. But where the Terracotta Army is let down is as a spectacle. Visually, I expected more. I expected an overwhelming amount, not just "quite a lot". With the current standing army taking up a fairly small proportion of Pit 1's hangar, it can't help but feel small in comparison. This will change as time goes on, but right now it still feels very much like an archaeological site. Interesting, yes, but not breathtaking. Ultimately, the story behind a Wonder is a bonus feature rather than being integral - the Petronas Towers, for example, has a pretty dull history but looks fantastic - but the Terracotta Warriors really is all about the story. And in the end, it can't quite live up to its own legend. Not now, not yet. But in ten or twenty or more years... well, it's a Wonder in progress, a Wonder yet to be fully revealed.

Some criteria then.

Size: Ultimately, around 8000 life-size soldiers, spread across three pits about seven metres underground. The largest of these pits, Pit 1, is 230 metres long and 62 metres wide, pretty sizeable. But as yet, this isn't filled, giving more the impression of empty space.
Engineering: Likely a fairly straightforward process of digging some pits and filling them with mass produced pottery figures. Where it becomes impressive is the sheer scale of the operation, and the use of assembly line techniques for quick and efficient production.
Artistry: Thousands of soldiers, with the illusion of individuality, standing together impassively make for a weird, even slightly eerie spectacle. Singly, they are well-crafted, although it is en masse they make an impression.
Age/Durability: 2200 years old. Unlike most statues, which get worn down, lost, or broken forever, the Terracotta Army has been safely contained within underground pits for virtually all that duration. It may be smashed to pieces, but it's all there, an ancient underground army.
Fame/Iconicity: Surely the second-most recognisable thing from China, only after the Great Wall, unless you count Chairman Mao posters. Globally known.
Context: A bit of a let down. The main pit being inside what seems like an aircraft hangar doesn't do much for the impact, as does the current fact that the standing warriors only take up a small part of the space. The other pits are more atmospheric. The astonishing volume of tourist tat all around doesn't exactly add much magic either. One day, hopefully, the context will be as part of the context of the 1st Emperor's tomb.
Back Story: Wonderful. Part of the tomb of the 1st Emperor of China, buried underground and lost for 2200 years, then rediscovered by chance by a farmer looking for water. The story is a joy.
Originality: Very.

Many places are regarded, usually by somewhat partisan supporters or simply marketing teams, as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The Terracotta Army seems to boast this claim louder than most, but in this case it doesn't appear to be nationalistic Chinese who came up with it, but former French president Jacques Chirac, a noted Sinophile. It appears to have done wonders for the prestige of the Terracotta Warriors, and the boast is repeated across the site. But like many self-proclaimed Wonders, it doesn't quite make the mark. It is a fascinating story, but visually lacks the impact really required from a Wonder. But it's one to watch. One day, hopefully in my lifetime, all the warriors will be uncovered, maybe in colour, and it will become a compelling satellite of the 1st Emperor's tomb. Then perhaps I can reassess. For now, it's still a little closer to an archaeological excavation than a fully fledged World Wonder, and I'd place it nearer the bottom of my central pack of Wonders, just a little below another self-proclaimed Eighth World Wonder, the Banaue Rice Terraces, but a fair bit above Ananda Temple in Bagan.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Angkor Wat
4. Sydney Opera House
5. Borobudur
6. Kailash Temple in Ellora
7. Akshardham

Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple


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