The spirit army

Stan­ley Ste­wart makes a pil­grim­age to view the first em­peror of China’s fa­bled ter­ra­cotta war­riors

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.wendy­wu­

Pic­ture: Cor­bis

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

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