The spirit army
Stanley Stewart makes a pilgrimage to view the first emperor of China’s fabled terracotta warriors
THE trouble with being an ancient nation is that you are likelier to get a real stinker for a founding father. Newer countries tend to be luckier, such as the US with George Washington and his ‘‘ I cannot tell a lie’’ routine or Italy with the dashing Giuseppe Garibaldi. But way back then, millenniums ago, cruel tyrants seemed to dominate the business of nation founding.
In Qin Shi Huang Di, the Chinese have the poster boy for maniacal dictators.
For centuries Qin’s tomb attracted no more attention than the many other large earth mounds that litter the plains around Xian in central China. Then one day in 1974 a farmer named Yang, digging a well in the corner of his orchard, struck something hard with his spade. When he cleared the loose earth, what he found was not a rock but a clay head, the first glimpse of the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century.
On the way to the beginning of China, windfall pomegranates have stained the road like spilled blood. The guide is babbling about the grandeurs of Xian, about how the city had been the capital of 11 Chinese dynasties, about how it is historically so much more important than Beijing. Her enthusiasm is understandable, if a trifle relentless. Beyond the car window, on the borders of a dusty field of hay stacks, I can see small grey stele marking the graves of peasants who have worked these fields.
Yang’s orchard has been replaced by a hangar covering an area as large as a football pitch known as Pit No. 1. We follow pathways beyond the ticket booths, the endless gift shops and the carefully planted trees. Inside, beneath the arching roof, I find myself gazing at one of the world’s great sights: the terracotta warriors, the silent army of life-size pottery soldiers that guard Qin’s tomb.
Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of the long ranks of figures, standing where they were placed more than 2000 years ago. Tall, handsome men, they are arrayed in battle formation in 11 deep columns stretching into the middle distance. No two are alike; each of the 1000 soldiers is an individual portrait. But even this assembly is only a fraction of the full army. Another 7000, at the very least, await resurrection.
It is their misplaced confidence that is so touching. We see them now as a lost army. They stand empty handed. Tomb robbers stole the weapons of these soldiers a few years after their interment; time has destroyed the rest. Likewise, the centuries have robbed them of meaning. Excavation has revealed them as dupes, following a discredited view of the afterlife — that it exists as some physical extension of this world — or engaged in a ridiculous conspiracy that the emperor was immortal. The man they were guarding, Qin, the founder of China, is a shadowy if spectacular figure. In 221BC he managed to forge a collection of warring states into a single nation: China, the oldest surviving political entity in the world. In our terms, China runs from Caesar to George W. Bush. Once the contemporary and the rival of Rome, it now shares the world stage with the US.
For Qin, a buried army is an appropriate epitaph: he was keen on burying people. He buried authors alive, having first burned their books. When any of his conscripted workers died on the job, he used their bodies as landfill. When he was entombed, he arranged to have all his childless concubines interred with him . . . alive. But as with most tyrants, it wasn’t all beatings and beheadings. Qin’s list of accomplishments is impressive. Aside from unifying China for the first time, he standardised measurements, minted a universal currency, created a unified law code, laid down the tenets of written Chinese and developed a centralised bureaucracy. He was also an energetic builder.
As well as countless palaces and more than 6000km of roads and canals, he made a good start on China’s other great tourist attraction, the Great Wall. What might he have accomplished had he not devoted so much time to tomb building? With a conscripted labour force that peaked at 720,000, it took 38 years to build his tomb. When he died on a tour of his eastern provinces, at 50, his ministers covered the corpse with fish to disguise the smell and carted it home to Xian.
They were keen to keep the death secret until they could get the body safely into its tomb and the succession seamlessly arranged. The funeral must have been a grim affair. Along with the concubines, thousands of craftsmen were buried alive in the tomb to keep its secrets safe. But someone apparently survived. Ancient records, written barely a century after Qin’s death, describe his tomb as an extraordinary underground landscape of palaces where ceilings are inlaid with pearls to simulate the night sky, where rivers run with mercury and trees bear fruit of precious stones, where gold and silver birds flit among the branches.
Historians tended to dismiss these accounts as fanciful until the discovery of the terracotta army. If the guardians of the tomb are so numerous and so fantastic,
they now realise that the tomb may easily match ancient accounts. It has not yet been opened but most agree that when it is, the tomb will exceed the spectacle of its guardians. Reputedly it is guarded by ingenious defences so when the Chinese get around to tackling it, they will need to be wary of the booby-trapped crossbows.
The terracotta army is one of tourism’s most famous celebrities and like any celebrity it is surrounded by a great deal of noise and nonsense. You need to prepare yourself not just for the scale of the excavation but for the size of the crowds and the shopping opportunities.
Two million people a year visit, which works out at about 500 an hour, though while I am here this seems like a serious underestimation. The visitors bring with them the full circus: the lecturing guides, the hawkers selling replica warriors, the endless posing for pictures. If you had hoped for a peaceful moment to reflect on issues of mortality and the long reach of the past, you can forget it.
For those who feel that tourism has defeated the terracotta army, or at least dulled its allure, I have a hot tip. To the east of Xian, less than an hour’s drive, is the tomb known as Han Yang Ling.
Opened in 2005, it has yet to make its way into many of the guidebooks. But this tomb and its adjoining museum is not only one of the best in China but the best of its kind in the world.
Its occupant is Jing Di, who ruled in the 2nd century BC. He is the antidote to Qin. Historians record a beneficent ruler who followed the Taoist principles of doing nothing against nature’’. He made peace with the northern nomads, lessened taxes and labour duties and reduced some of the law’s crueller punishments. There is no record of him having buried anyone alive.
Perhaps people get the tomb museums they deserve. Jian Di has an exquisitely designed visitor complex that has been constructed over the tomb excavations. Sloping ramps lead to large underground halls where glass walls and glass floors allow unimpeded views of the excavation.
The soft lighting, the sensitive unobtrusive architecture, plus the fact there are few tourists here, allow me to savour the strangeness and the romance of the moment — I am peering into the tomb of a Chinese emperor who died more than 2000 years ago — in a way that is denied at the terracotta army.
The artefacts lie as they were found, many still partially encased in earth. The collapsed remains of a chariot are like a skeleton on the pale earth floor. Rows of lacquer boxes lie unopened. Pale tapestries blossom in the excavation pits like strange lichens. The sentinel soldiers, tilted with time, lean against one another, their long elegant faces turned towards the light. They have a strange innocence, like choir boys.
It is a tribute to how well this museum works that it feels more like an art gallery. The display is so sensitively done that it is the beauty of the artefacts that first impresses. The sensual piles of hundreds of terracotta jars are like a modern work of found art.
The endless figures are like an Antony Gormley installation. The soldiers still emerging from the earth are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s slaves, still partially trapped in stone.
The much more famous terracotta army, of course, is a great spectacle and not to be missed, but it is at Han Yang Ling that you feel the breath of the past, as well as the excitement of archeological discovery undisturbed by the tourist circus that threatens to overwhelm China’s first emperor. Checklist Wendy Wu Tours offers a variety of trips that visit Xian, including its 10-day China Experience, from $2680 ex Australia. More: www.wendywutours.com.au.
Feat of clay: The 1000 life-sized terracotta warriors, arranged in battle formation in 11 deep columns, are just a fraction of the full army; at least another 7000 are thought to await resurrection in Xian in central China
Rank and file: A giant hangar shelters the vast terracotta army at Xian