INDIANA Jones has nothing on the story of the terracotta army and the intrigue and power struggles that gripped China at the time of the first emperor. As historian John Man writes, it’s amazing no one has made a film about it. But, then, much of the tale is just too incredible.
Man’s TheTerracottaArmy (Random House, $35) is a worthy substitute for a Hollywood blockbuster. His terrific book goes well beyond the warriors but never quite loses touch with its main subjects, the spirit army built to protect an emperor obsessed with mortality or, as Man neatly describes them, ‘‘ the ghosts from history’s subconscious’’.
The first emperor may have worked wonders uniting a warring China but he was clearly no Mr Nice Guy; he bumped off his subjects at the drop of a hat. Mind you, compared with the emperor who followed, he was a saint. Man says the terracotta warriors, fantastic though they may be, were a mere sideshow compared with the building of the emperor’s as yet unopened tomb. He teasingly speculates on what surprises, and treasures, may lie inside (though he’s dubious about talk of loaded crossbows waiting to welcome visitors). Could the great man be preserved in mercury inside a nest of coffins? Are there really rivers of mercury that appear to flow? Intriguing stuff. Interested film directors should form a line, probably behind Kevin Costner.