Issue Number: 96
China’s Terracotta Army is on the march towards the British Museum, reports Frances Wood
The ‘buried army’ of 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of China’s First Emperor is one of the great archaeological wonders of the world. Its long trenches contain hundreds of clay soldiers with carefully modelled armour, hands shaped to clasp weapons. However, despite the apparent individuality of the figures, there are in fact only eight different hand-types, for this was also the site of one of the world’s first mass productions.
One of the most exciting aspects of the whole necropolis is that new finds keep appearing. The first discovery of the terracotta soldiers occurred in 1974, when peasants spotted a lifelike head looking up at them while digging a well; in 1999 eleven terracotta figures of muscular acrobats were unearthed, followed in 2000 by a pit containing life-size officials with frilled collars, and a year later by a group of life-size bronze water-birds. This year it was announced that massive underground architecture had been detected in the mound itself.
This necropolis marks a transition in Chinese burial practice. Previous royal tombs included bronzes, weapons, chariots and slaughtered horses – and even human sacrifices – symbolising the ritual and oppression of rule. Though some horses were sacrificed in the First Emperor’s tomb, most of the grave goods symbolised not only rule and control (the well-armed terracotta army and bureaucrats) but also the need of the soul for entertainment and sustenance. Throughout succeeding dynasties, imperial burials continued to use models, such as the ones found here, rather than sacrifices.
The scale and innovation of this tomb are not surprising, because the First Emperor of China (258–210 bc) was an extraordinary man. He was born at a time when China was divided into separate, warring states. In 221 bc, he conquered the last of the rival states, unifying the vast land area stretching from Mongolia in the north down to Guangdong in the south, effectively creating the state of China (which may also have gained that name from his home state of Qin, pronounced‘chin’).
Abandoning the separate systems of the different states, he unified the currency, weights and measures, and the script and set the pattern of bureaucratic rule that was to endure for 2,000 years. He ordered work on the Great Wall and even dictated the width of chariot axles.
He has, however, been vilified throughout much of China’s history, accused of attempting to destroy Confucianism and traditional culture and ridiculed as being so obsessed with immortality that he poisoned himself with potions.
In ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’, the British Museum presents his achievements and explores the myths and mysteries surrounding him. While the sheer mass of the buried army cannot be replicated, the twenty or so sculptures in the exhibition are more than have ever previously been sent out of China.
The life-size bronze birds, bureaucrats and acrobats are perhaps the most exciting part of the show, as they have never been seen abroad before. While the workers who made the ceramic drains for the Emperor’s palace also worked on his tomb, which is why the soldier’s legs bear more than a passing resemblance to drain pipes, the terracotta acrobats and strong men are smoothly muscled figures with finely modelled legs. They are true sculpture set beside mass production. Together, they offer a rare glimpse into the culture of the First Emperor’s reign.
The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, British Museum, London (020 7323 8000; www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk), 13 Sep–6 April 2008