Terracotta warriors at the BM

I went to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. It’s unusual for them to be on show outside China, so it’s a big event; they have about a dozen terracotta figures and lots of associated material.

It’s certainly worth going to, but the warriors themselves didn’t have the wow factor you might hope for. I may not have seen them in the flesh before, but they are so familiar that it felt like I had. I don’t know why some artworks—paintings particularly?—are so much more effective in the flesh than in photos, while others aren’t. In the particular case of the terracotta warriors, I think part of what makes them incredible is the sheer number of them: the iconic image is of them standing in massed ranks. And although the figures are beautifully made—they are modelled in great detail and famously every one is slightly individual—I don’t know that they are great works of Art. Whatever that means. They were made on a production line basis by prisoners doing forced labour; I don’t know whether that’s relevant.

banliang coin

So for me the most interesting thing was all the context: the stuff about the ‘First Emperor’, his conquest and unification of about a third of modern China and the standardisation of the coinage, weights and measures, and writing system; the architectural details of his palaces; and all the other stuff that was buried with him. It’s not just warriors; the exhibition had terracotta acrobats, civil servants and musicians. And all those things were found at sites away from the main tomb mound itself, which has never been excavated out of respect for the emperor. And there’s probably lots of good stuff in the tomb. This is Wikipedia:

According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC) [i.e. about 100 years after the event], the First Emperor was buried alongside great amounts of treasure and objects of craftsmanship, as well as a scale replica of the universe complete with gemmed ceilings representing the cosmos, and flowing mercury representing the great earthly bodies of water. Pearls were also placed on the ceilings in the tomb to represent the stars, planets, etc.

I particularly liked the writing, a form called Small Seal Script. It’s the ancestor of modern Chinese script, and they had a sample next to the modern equivalent that allowed you to see the similarities. But the seal script looks like petroglyphs: much more varied than modern hanzi, and sort of more organic, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. Partially the difference is between a script written with a pointed implement and one written with a brush, but it’s also presumably the effect of two thousand years of standardisation. There’s an interesting chart of various writing styles on this Wikipedia page.

One thing I find interesting is the terms which they chose to use to talk about the emperor. Qin Shihuangdi’s achievement in conquering the neighbouring kingdoms and unifying them was undoubtedly remarkable. But he was a megalomaniac despot. He declared himself divine emperor of the universe. His tomb complex—built, remember, by prisoners, and designed to be buried—is just him extending his megalomania into the afterlife. So when the BM refers to him as ‘one of the greatest rulers in history’, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. In some sense it’s clearly true, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to live in his empire. And I find the fact that the Chinese aren’t willing to excavate his tomb slightly creepy. It’s hardly a uniquely Chinese thing, of course: it’s easy to get caught up by the romance of someone like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but it’s hard to argue that they increased the sum of human happiness. I wonder, by the way, since the Chinese government is clearly currently running a campaign of cultural diplomacy, whether they exercise any editorial control over exhibitions like this. I imagine the BM would have been absolutely gagging for the opportunity to host the show, so they wouldn’t need to be heavy-handed about it: just a gentle hint here or there.

» There aren’t really any pictures of the warriors on the BM website, so I found a picture of a Qin dynasty banliang coin from their collection just to have something to illustrate the post.


  1. 20 January 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    And let’s not forget the First Emperor massacred scholars and burnt books.

  2. Harry
    20 January 2008 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realise that, but it certainly seems in character.

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