November 09, 2007

The Tomb of an Emperor


The first Emperor of China is a historical character and his legacy defines in many ways what China is today. He originally was not Emperor of China, but the Prince of a powerful western Kingdom Qin. During his reign as King of Qin, he conquered the other kingdoms which constituted ancient China. The King of Qin became an emperor in 221BC over a vast landmass, stretching perhaps over a third of what is modern China today. His power was extensive- Chinese histories credit him with an almost totalitarian ideology, an aim of unification which stretched to the elimination of any possible rival, including the massacre of 460 scholars and the destruction of older feudal patterns of service and government. He brought in a single currency and connected together the walls that previous Chinese governments had constructed to the north, to build the first defensive Great Wall. The Emperor's dynasty lasted a very short time- within years of his death in 210BC, his son the second Emperor was killed and chaos descended before the rise of the Han Emperors beggining in 202BC.

The Emperor though left much behind him. The Han reigned to some extent in conformity with his principles especially of unity- and the shape of the currency that he had originally drafted remained the same right up until the early 20th Century. Much of our account of his acheivement comes from the Han historian, Sima Qian, who was born in 145BC and whose histories cover the whole of Chinese history from its mythical origins to his own lifetime. Sima Qian was hostile to the Qin Emperor partly because his dynasty replaced that of the Qin, and his history is not a history as we would recognise it in modern terms. Sima Qian writes fables and chronicles and treatises on subjects, the past for him is a set of exempla and a set of dates. He doesn't dwell as we might like him to on subjects relevant to us, but rather has the preoccupations of a Han civil servant: so his book tells us of stories about assassins, stories about how to govern and how not to govern, chronicles of dates and all from a perspective that denegrates the Qin. Despite that Sima Qian is one of the great historians of the ancient world- his name deserves to be up there with the great classical historians.

However we are incredibly lucky when it comes to the Qin Emperor, for in the mid-1970s a peasant in China came across a stupendous find. In the soil his spade hit a terracotta head, and archaeologists coming across to work on the site found not one but thousands of terracotta bodies and artefacts scattered in the soil. Having reconstructed what the site must have been, they worked out that these terracotta bodies constituted a seperate state that the Qin Emperor hoped to rule in his afterlife. At the British Museum in London at the moment, some of those finds are being exhibited. You see all sorts of people that the Emperor required in his afterlife: he has strong men, acrobats, musicians, civil servants, soldiers of all types and even a royal charioteer. Some of these artefacts bring to life stories from Sima Qian's accounts. For example on the Emperor's death, his senior civil servant Li Si kept the Imperial demise secret. He did so by maintaining the illusion that the Emperor was still alive giving orders from his Imperial chariot- and to some extent when one sees the chariot, one can imagine how that worked. The Emperor closeted and secretive and Li Si and a couple of others conspicuously running in and out to receive orders.

The terracotta army itself is shown in all its glory. It is incredible what the craftsmen (probably conscripted) could do. The skill with which the faces in particular are rendered is stunning- the visual impressiveness of what you see makes you reel back, considering that these are faces looking straight at you from thousands of years ago. The picture in particular of a fiery Turkish looking light infantryman stayed in my mind all of last night. The Museum have organised the exhibition in a very proffessional way- first they show you some Qin artefacts and describe the role of the Qin Emperor in Chinese history, avoiding much of the detail but trying to give a non-sinologist a good understanding of what this man was and what he represents. Then you proceed to see the terracotta army and court itself- which is a stunning experience and having it put in context before you see it, it becomes more impressive. The Emperor constructed this army to protect him in his afterlife- it appears they were stationed on the only open access route to his tomb in order to guard it. His tomb itself has never been opened and apart from Sima Qian's fantastic descriptions and some scientific work above the site on concentrations of metals found underneath, noone knows what is there. What we have though is these soldiers- we know they were painted and so their rather mundane colours today aren't as impressive as the gaudy way they were decorated- we know that irises for instance were painted in the eyes and we can tell all this thanks to chemical analysis of the surface of the statues. They are beautifully vibrant and vital. Each has its own character and facial expression, beard and overall look.

China is one of the hardest societies I have ever tried to understand. I have only been there once- but that's once more than most Westerners. Reading its literature and looking at its art is a very foreign experience in the way that reading Islamic literature or even Indian literature is not. Through accidents of history, China seems like another region of the earth from Europe. But its an increasingly powerful and important place- from films by great directors like Zhang Yimou to its economic importance, China is not merely an object of curious interest for the West, it is a place we have to understand. This exhibition therefore is a wonderful opportunity to learn something about China and the way that it was created and its history. The terracotta warriors are so impressive that they are a reminder of the grandeur of Chinese civilisation. They are also an incentive because of their beauty to try and understand more about the culture from which they sprang, seeing their beauty inspired me to buy translated fragments from Sima Qian's history. An exhibition like this is precisely the thing that the world's museums should increasingly engage in- if there is to be dialogue between our cultures then this is a wonderful way of expressing it and I hope some British treasures make their way temporarily to Beijing.

The Museum's exhibition reminds one of the importance of Chinese civilisation and the importance of cultivating an understanding of it. It also reminded me very visibly of the difficulties of historical research. There is so much that we do not know and will never know about the first Emperor. The history that we have is fragmented and written long after the Emperor's death. We have these artefacts but with many of them we are not sure of their use- and we have not yet seen inside the tomb of the Emperor to see what clues lie there.

One thing I do regret about the museum's exhibition is that there was not more outside or inside from historians of the era, Chinese and Western, discussing the Emperor. There wasn't even a good academic biography for sale- an unpardonable lapse! Another gap was that the First Emperor's attitude to religion was left untouched. We were invited to see the army as a simplistic guard for the afterlife or as a manifestation of the Emperor's meglamania: but I would have liked to see something more about what Chinese people of that time beleived about the afterlife and how that connected to what the Emperor did. One interesting question that wasn't touched upon was why none of his successors made this kind of tomb- it could be that they did and the tombs are lost waiting a farmer to discover them, it could be that his example discredited the practice, it could be that beliefs had shifted, it could be that this is one of many such tombs, leaving the exhibition I was none the wiser. One felt like screaming for more information. But having said that, that is possibly the churlish attitude to take. The exhibition is wonderful- the fact that these statues have left China must have been a great diplomatic acheivement and the museum has arranged them suitably well.

The First Emperor is one of those figures whose actions had momentous consequences spreading out through time, doubling and redoubling until his creation, a unified China, became one of the great powers of a globalised world in the 20th Century. Seeing the terracotta warriors, seeing the artefacts he collected around himself in his afterlife, one gets a sense of the immense power that he wielded, the creative wills that bent to his commanding will and the strength of his shortlived imperium.

2 comments:

Sir James Badger said...

The terracotta army was indeed an amazing thing. How much water has flowed under the bridge, eh?

fake consultant said...

over the course of a couple years, i was able to see treasures of tut and treasures of the emperor...and i was struck by the desire of both to perpepuate the rule in the afterlife.

(an amazing sight: the jade "burial suit" crafted for the sun king)

you have to wonder if the interest in the afterlife is based on the emperor's need to feel "eternal", or perhaps a sort of "recruiting tool": "serve the emperor in this life...and live on in the next."

last point: i had also heard a suggestion that the practice of tomb building on this scale ended because the project was so financially draning to the country that it could not continue.