Ghost army marches out of China’s past
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