East vs West ten­sion drives ar­chae­o­log­i­cal de­bate

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

SI­LENT and enig­matic, China’s em­blem­atic Ter­ra­cotta War­riors are at the cen­tre of a bit­ter row, with pa­tri­ots and schol­ars dis­miss­ing as im­pos­si­ble the­o­ries they could have been in­spired by Greek sculp­ture.

The 8000-man clay army, crafted around 250 BC for the tomb of China’s first em­peror Qin Shi­huang, is a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, a ma­jor tourist draw and a sym­bol of an­cient Chi­nese artis­tic and mil­i­tary so­phis­ti­ca­tion in a coun­try that pro­claims it­self a 5000-year-old civil­i­sa­tion.

Ques­tion­ing their ori­gins touches on deep sen­si­tiv­i­ties, as many take pride in China’s early dis­cov­ery of world-chang­ing in­ven­tions, from gun­pow­der to the com­pass and mov­able type.

At the same time its his­tory with the West is fraught with a sense of hu­mil­i­a­tion over the colonies and con­ces­sions es­tab­lished in the 19th cen­tury.

But the­o­ries put for­ward by art his­to­rian Lukas Nickel of the Univer­sity of Vienna – and trum­peted in a re­cent doc­u­men­tary by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic and the BBC – claim that Greek in­no­va­tions in artis­tic nat­u­ral­ism, and per­haps even Greek ar­ti­sans them­selves, di­rectly in­flu­enced the sculp­tures.

After the doc­u­men­tary aired ear­lier this month, ne­ti­zens blasted the BBC and ques­tioned how the Greeks could have im­pacted an­cient China.

“Couldn’t it be that Chi­nese peo­ple went first to Greece and in­flu­enced their sculp­ture?” one wrote.

At the tomb tourists from across China crammed ob­ser­va­tion plat­forms to view the ranks of sol­diers, jostling for space to snap self­ies against their se­ri­ous, stony fa­cades as guides briskly nar­rated the story of their dis­cov­ery by farm­ers in the 1970s.

Sev­eral vis­i­tors were in­cred­u­lous at the­o­ries of for­eign in­flu­ence. Dong Shenghua of Beijing said this was “im­pos­si­ble”, point­ing to the Asian fea­tures of the stat­ues and the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the crafts­man­ship, which is “so good we can’t even make them to­day”.

“We have 5000 years of his­tory. How many does Eng­land have?” he asked.

Ma Dongling, from Guangxi, said in­spi­ra­tion could not have come from abroad as China was “very in­no­va­tive” at the time. “The em­peror was the first in the world to do this.”

The mu­seum’s lead ar­chae­ol­o­gist Zhang Weix­ing was sim­i­larly dis­mis­sive, say­ing the ma­te­ri­als, tech­nol­ogy, and ce­ram­ics tech­niques used for the War­riors were all Chi­nese.

“To say that the Qin tombs and an­cient Greece had con­tact has no sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence at all,” he told AFP. “It merely ex­ists in the scholar’s con­jec­ture.”

As em­peror, he added, Qin Shi­huang “not only in­no­vated the ter­ra­cotta war­riors, he also cre­ated a se­ries of in­no­va­tions” in­clud­ing stan­dard­ised weights and mea­sures, na­tional roads, and a uni­fied cur­rency.

“Who in­flu­enced whom, it’s tough to say. An­cient Greek sculp­ture had al­ready also been in­flu­enced by Egypt.”

Schol­arly gap For ev­i­dence Nickel points to his­tor­i­cal records sug­gest­ing the first Qin em­peror made casts of huge bronze stat­ues seen in China’s far west, re­al­is­tic de­tail­ing of mus­cle and bone on some fig­ures, and the ab­sence of an ex­ten­sive prior sculp­tural tra­di­tion in China.

Fur­ther re­search could show that for­eign em­pires may have pro­vided a model for the Qin state it­self, he told AFP.

“I think it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble that there’s much more in­flu­ence in thought about state­craft, in how to run an em­pire, than peo­ple have been so far will­ing to ad­mit.”

He points to the rise of em­pires in cen­tral Asia be­fore the Qin dy­nasty, with the Achaemenids in Per­sia fol­lowed by Alexan­der the Great and the Seleu­cids. “When I look at the map of Eura­sia, what the Chi­nese do fits per­fectly in the big picture.”

But bas­ing the­o­ries about trans­mis­sion of cul­tural ideas on stylis­tic sim­i­lar­i­ties in ob­jects fails to con­vince some Chi­nese schol­ars, he ac­knowl­edged.

“This is an ar­gu­ment that works mainly in Europe and Amer­ica,” Nickel says. In China, re­searchers rely more on tex­tual ev­i­dence for proof, he said, and so were “very hes­i­tant to be­lieve there were in­ter­ac­tions be­fore the mid-2nd cen­tury BC, when the Chi­nese em­peror of the Han dy­nasty sent an en­voy to cen­tral Asia”.

And the idea of early Si­noWestern ex­changes threat­ens to un­der­mine a cor­ner­stone of Chi­nese iden­tity: The Qin dy­nasty, while bru­tal in many respects, with book burn­ings and ex­e­cu­tions of literati, laid the foun­da­tion for China as a uni­fied na­tion state that has per­sisted for two mil­len­nia.

“That is the mo­ment when China is be­ing made,” said Nickel, ac­knowl­edg­ing the sen­si­tiv­ity of his as­ser­tions.

“Say­ing there is such a link, it al­ways brings up mem­o­ries of colo­nial­ism, of Western domination of East Asia, which is to­tally un­der­stand­able.”

Zhang in­sisted the dis­agree­ment was based on aca­demic rigour. “If he was an ar­chae­ol­o­gist we could dis­cuss this is­sue,” he said. “Ar­chae­ol­o­gists put more im­por­tance on his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and un­earthed ob­jects.”

Li Xi­uzhen, a fel­low scholar at the mu­seum, told AFP that while there may have been cul­tural con­tact, that did not im­ply in­flu­ence and the war­riors were com­pletely Chi­nese.

“The ter­ra­cotta army is unique in the world,” she said, and the “cre­ation of the Qin peo­ple”. –

Pho­tos: AFP

Some his­to­ri­ans are the­o­ris­ing that the Chi­nese sculp­tures are in­flu­enced by Greek ar­ti­sans.

The sculp­tures of the Ter­ra­cotta Army at the Ter­ra­cotta War­rior Mu­seum in Xian in north China’s Shaanxi prov­ince are em­broiled in a con­tro­versy con­cern­ing their pos­si­ble in­spi­ra­tions.

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