In 1974 a farmer digging on the outskirts of present-day Xi’an in China came across a puzzling object. He saw before him the head of a man, features frozen in an impassive, forbidding gaze, protruding from the ground as if buried alive. The head, it turned out, was made of clay and belonged to an entire terracotta soldier, realised in every detail of costume and armour; and that soldier turned out to be just one of a thousand more, arranged in full military formation to defend, for all time, the tomb of the legendary First Emperor of China, Ying Zheng. This ghostly army, all but bleached of the paint that had once made its soldiers seem all the more fierce and life-like, had lain in the ground undisturbed for more than two thousand two hundred years, following the emperor’s death and entombment. The farmer had stumbled on the single most extraordinary archaeological discovery of modern times.
Remarkable as they were, the terracotta soldiers turned out to be just the beginning of the find. They had been buried in a series of pits more than a kilometre away from a great tomb mound in the form of a square, flattened pyramid. They were the infantry, but there was also a cavalry division and numerous charioteers – more than a hundred have so far been excavated – riding in vehicles made of cast bronze. It soon emerged that the whole area was honeycombed with pits containing what amounted to a replica of the emperor’s entire world. Some contained acrobats, to entertain him in the afterlife. Others housed administrators and officials, while yet more were designed to stable his horses, which were killed and buried along with him and were discovered as a series of skeletons beneath the ground, each one tended by a kneeling terracotta stablelad. There was even a man-made underwater river, which might once have flowed with mercury, along the banks of which were perched birds fashioned from bronze, accompanied by clay musicians.
The earliest annals of the First Emperor, written by the historian Sima Qian a century after Ying Zheng’s death, contain many accounts of his exploits. The writer tells of how the emperor conquered all of the warring states of China – which owes its modern name to the Qin dynasty of which he was the head – and of how he was responsible for the building of the Great Wall. Sima Qian tells of how the emperor did not merely conquer his enemies but also recreated their most splendid palaces on the northern slopes of his new capital of Xianyang, filling them with the most beautiful women and art that his troops had taken hostage from the feudal states, so that his conquests might always be visibly and tangibly before him. He tells of how the emperor ordered 120,000 families to move to the city which he had built, and of how he brought together a workforce of no fewer than 700,000 men – many of them convicts or the prisoners of conquest – to work on his tomb and on Ebang Palace, said to have been the single most magnificent building ever erected for a ruler, where the throne room alone was nearly half a mile long and more than a hundred yards wide.
Sceptics had long suspected Sima Qien of exaggeration, but the discovery of the emperor’s tomb put paid to those doubts. It is truly vast, a place of burial the size of a small city and one that makes even the grandest tombs of the ancient Egyptians look relatively unambitious. The entire complex measures 56 square kilometres. At the current rate of progress, the site will not be fully excavated for at least a hundred years and probably more. It is unlikely that anyone alive now will see what is uncovered when the archaeologists finally work their way to the heart of the tomb, into the chamber that contains the coffin of the emperor himself.
“The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army”, is the BritishMuseum’s principal exhibition for the autumn. It is a show that might be said to attempt the impossible – to convey the magnificence of Ying Zheng’s vast city of the afterlife in a museum display of approximately 140 objects. No effort has been spared to stun and amaze and generally overawe the visitor. A great black circular stageset has been suspended halfway up the gilded dome of the old British Library’s circular reading room. The display is arranged around a spiral, so that the viewer approaches the centre, where the most extraordinary things are to be found, like an initiate being allowed to enter the inner sanctum of a mystery. Above has been suspended an enormous plasterboard version of a bi, the pierced circular form made of jade and traditionally buried with the dead in ancient China. This may be meant to suggest the First Emperor’s belief that he was ordained to rule by the heavens, the circle standing in his symbology for the overarching universe.
This might all come across as a case of design overkill, were it not for the breathtaking and extraordinary nature of the objects themselves: a crouching archer, frozen at the ready; a chariot of bronze drawn by four horses, rider huddled under a canopy at the back; a flock of bronze birds, including a graceful heron and a complacent duck, realised with stunning naturalism by the artists of ancient China; and, of course, the terracotta soldiers themselves, twelve of whom stand in formation at the centre of the display, larger than life, forever ready to do battle against evil spirits bent on corrupting the flesh of their emperor.
While there were far smaller precedents for Ying Zheng’s city of the afterlife in earlier Chinese culture – large, shaft-like tombs in which rulers had themselves buried with various objects intended to ease their passage through the afterlife – nothing had ever been attempted on remotely the same scale. What makes the terracotta soldiers and bronze birds and figures of musicians and acrobats all the more extraordinary is the fact that there was no sophisticated school of naturalistic figurative sculpture in China before they were created. They are the first works of their kind, and there is nothing quite like them in later Chinese art either. It is possible that Ying Zheng got the idea of using monumental sculpture of this kind from the ancient Assyrians, with whom the Chinese had contact, but there is nothing to prove that supposition. There are variations of handling in the different figures that suggest a certain sense of priorities. The terracotta soldiers, whose parts were mass-produced by armies of slave-workers, each responsible for heads or hands or feet, are relatively inexpressive. But this is effective. It gives them a forbidding air of common purpose, of individuality suppressed in the service of a military goal. The court entertainers, by contrast, including an acrobat and a notably chubby weight-lifter, are sharply individuated, perhaps because it was thought their idiosyncrasies would amuse the emperor.
What did the First Emperor hope to achieve by creating a huge underground simulacrum of the China he had forged, to accompany him in death?It is difficult to be sure, because while the chronicles of his rule emhasise the extraordinary nature of the project they do not explicitly spell out its purpose. He was certainly obsessed with the dream of achieving eternal life, and on several occasions he sent fruitless expeditions to the eastern sea, to find the mythical islands containing herbs and plants that supposedly granted immortality to those who ate them. He was also in the habit of making tours of his empire, and having long inscriptions about his achievements carved into particular sacred mountains. These inscriptions emphasise the way in which he, “the August Thearch”, had brought order to a world of chaos, subduing the six warring kingdoms of pre-imperial China and bringing peace and law through conquest.
It is tempting to think that the emperor’s vast underground tomb was a similar attempt to bring order and measure and rule, but this time to the chaos and mystery of death. This was far more than a ruler furnishing himself regally for the afterlife. It was an attempt to occupy and transform the world of the dead, as it was understood in China – to bring law and administration to that shadow zone, where the ghosts of ancestors and all kinds of strange spirits were held to coexist. The wonder of it all is inseparable from its amazing hubris. There is no humility in the clay men and women the emperor took underground with him, no sense of deference to the spirits who might already be down there in the darkness. The emperor’s terracotta soldiers and administrators and chariot riders are there for a single mad and mighty purpose – to invade death itself, to colonise and conquer the unknown world that lies beyond this one, so that one man might rule it forever.