Ghost army marches out of China’s past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

THE peas­ant who went to dig a well but found a fierce sol­dier’s face in­stead can’t have imag­ined the con­se­quences of his day’s work. This BBC doc­u­men­tary tracks the jour­ney of his find in that dusty field in cen­tral China 35 years ago, dubbed the great­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­ery in his­tory, to the read­ing room of the Bri­tish Mu­seum, where The First Em­peror ex­hi­bi­tion opened last Septem­ber.

That fierce face turned out to be one of 7000 ter­ra­cotta war­riors buried to guard the re­mains of China’s first em­peror, Qin Shi­huangdi, ‘‘ the first au­gust em­peror of Qin’’. Qin, who is up there with Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bon­a­parte for mil­i­tary ge­nius, ac­cord­ing to this pro­gram, ruled the state of Qin in what is now north­ern China for 25 years be­fore con­quer­ing vast fur­ther ter­ri­to­ries and unit­ing them un­der a sin­gle ban­ner in 221BC, form­ing the old­est sur­viv­ing po­lit­i­cal en­tity.

In this hour- long fea­ture, the ac­tion jumps be­tween the splen­did dome of the Bri­tish Mu­seum, where builders per­form the small mir­a­cle of mov­ing tens of tonnes of wood and steel through a sin­gle small door into the cav­ernous ex­hi­bi­tion space, to China and the fields around Xi’an, where a mir­a­cle of or­gan­i­sa­tion and lo­gis­tics was per­formed on a far grander scale in the first cen­tury.

The ob­jects are, of course, the stars, from the stone war­riors, more than 20 of whom were to make the trip to Lon­don, to the bronze wa­ter birds re­cently dis­cov­ered in an an­nex cham­ber some dis­tance from the war­riors.

Not to men­tion the ex­quis­ite bronze car­riages, thought to be half- size repli­cas of those used to trans­port the em­peror and which were deemed too pre­cious to leave China, so were dis­played in Lon­don in replica only.

De­li­cious, too, to ob­serve the cu­ra­tor’s mild con­cern when one of the war­riors emerges from its pack­ing case in Lon­don, bro­ken.

It’s along the lines of an ear­lier break, she re­marks ca­su­ally, in ref­er­ence to the fact that each of the 7000 ter­ra­cotta fig­ures was found smashed.

The de­stroy­ers are thought to have wrought their havoc not long af­ter the orig­i­nal en­tomb­ment, that is, 2000 years ago.

Well worth a look, or bet­ter still, a trip to Lon­don, or best of all, to Xi’an.

Feat of clay: Two of the thou­sands of ter­ra­cotta war­riors un­earthed at Xi’an

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