The Terracotta Warriors
Are they really good?
I went to visit the terracotta warriors, determined not to be impressed. Everyone goes there and says wow! Aren’t they just amazing! But I was determined to go there and be disappointed, and to come back and tell you how overstated it all was. I went, I saw: was I disappointed or was I secretly rather impressed? Read all about it!
The Terracotta Army was built to defend the tomb of the Emperor Qin who united China in 220 BC and established his capital in his home kingdom of Xian, in the west of China. He was determined to be buried not in the city itself but at a safe distance away some 30 miles outside it where he built a huge barrow. The terracotta Army was designed to protect the barrow, but it was buried some 2 miles away and concealed to such effect that it was not until 1974 when peasants digging a well found some interesting remains, and the army was at last revealed.
Following its rediscovery and excavation it has become the show piece of Chinese tourism and it is magnificently presented in what is now an elegant country park with a number of pavilions.
The warriors are not as I had thought scattered at random but are in three pits, each of which is covered by its own hall. Each of the pits is complete – the perimeters have all been excavated and it is assumed that there are no more pits waiting to be discovered, so the total extent of the army is known, although none of the pits has yet been fully excavated.
The main pit is the first pit to have been discovered, and this is covered by a huge hall, in effect a huge aircraft hangar built to cover the entire pit. And when you first go in and see the size of the building, and then the rows and rows of the terracotta figures, you really do go, ‘Wow’. But then – and here my cynicism kicks in – let me tell you the true story.
The displayed rows of warriors only occupy about a quarter of the building. The rest of the building is still a workshop.
At the front there are three rows of warriors and it is these that are mainly displayed, the vanguard of the army. There are 68 soldiers in each row, totalling 204 in all: originally each held a bow. Behind them at right angles are the trenches that contain the main army – nine trenches in all (and two outriders) each containing four warriors abreast and stretching back for some thirty rows of warriors, so that in all there are some 1,200 terracotta figures on display.
At first they all seemed the same, but then you realise that there are many differences. Not only is each figure an individual, but they each have their different rank in the highly stratified Chinese army. There are also a number of chariots, twelve in all, each drawn by four horses. It is possible to walk around the entire hall – from the tourist management point of view this means you can spread out the visitors. You then realise that behind the main display, there are a number of partly excavated or unexcavated trenches.
The warriors are not perfectly preserved: they were buried in trenches, which were roofed in timber, and the timber fell in smashing the warriors who were all found in pieces; and it takes much longer to restore the warriors than it does to excavate them.
Behind the initial display there is what might be called a huge workshop area, partly displaying the excavations in progress and the trenches as excavated, and partly as a workshop where restoration is taking place. It will take a lot of time before all the warriors excavated are restored and pieced together, and ready to be displayed in their former glory.
Adjacent to Pit 1, is a second pit, Pit 2. This is very different to Pit 1, being a specialised pit. It is smaller than Pit 1, and instead of being rectangular, it is L-shaped, each part of the L having a different type of troop.
The L-shaped projection houses 332 archers, half of them kneeling, the rest standing. The southern area consists of war chariots, 64 in all, arranged in eight columns of eight. The chariots were originally made of wood, and had completely disintegrated when unearthed.
The central part of the pit was a mixture of war chariots, cavalry and infantry, while the northern area had hundred and eight cavalrymen, each cavalry man standing in front of a saddled warhorse. These were specialised troops, ready for action.
At the side of the hall was an interesting display of four warriors who have survived more-or-less complete and are the subject of a special display – click here .
There is a third, smaller pit, Pit 3, which was the most important one. It was smaller than the rest, and contained only a few figures, though they were well spread out.
At the centre was a chariot, facing onto a ramp
There was an elaborate approach ramp at the foot of which there was a chariot, though since it was made of wood, it has disappeared
In the North and South Chambers were 64 fully armoured soldiers but unlike the soldiers in pit 1 and 2 ,these figures were arranged facing inwards with their backs to the wall, suggesting that they were guards, and it is argued that this was the command centre for the whole complex.
It was all very impressive. The work of preserving, and most importantly restoring the terracotta army is still in progress and will no doubt continue for centuries to come. It is still a little difficult for art historians to work out where the inspiration came from for these full-scale, life-size, realistic figures, for there is no such tradition in Chinese art. Is this perhaps an influence in the far-off west that someone had heard and told the emperor what the Greeks were doing and the emperor thought it would be rather amusing to outdo the Greeks and then conceal all his handy-work? The task of reconstruction and analysis is still in progress.
But why was the Terracotta Army placed here? Some two miles away is the huge barrow in which the Emperor Qin was buried. The Emperor Qin, pronounced Chin, is the most important person in Chinese history, for it was he who first pulled China together as a single unit. Before him, the heart of China was divided between six different kingdoms, but having become king of one of the kingdoms in 246 BC, he then conquered the other five kingdoms and in 220 BC proclaimed himself Emperor of China. He proved to be a very impressive ruler, unifying weights and measures, standardising the writing, and establishing the bureaucracy that has held China together ever since. At the same time he was very cruel, burning books and burning scholars alive, which is why his reputation in history has not altogether been favourable. He spent the latter part of his life seeking the secret of eternal life, but he died at the age of 50 and his succession was bungled. Thus the Qin Dynasty that he founded died out in 206 BC and was replaced by the Han dynasty – the equivalent of the Romans – who are essentially the successors to the achievement of Qin, under whom after whom China is named. And it was Qin who established the Terracotta Army.
Qin was determined to be buried not in Xian itself, but a safe distance away, some thirty miles outside it, where he built a huge, huge barrow. True it is not very steep, – but it is vast. It has never been excavated and it is said that within it there is an army of cross-bow men with their cross-bows at the ready to shoot any archaeologist or tomb robber who dares to penetrate – none has so far dared! The whole barrow is densely covered with woodland. The barrow is part of a huge rectangular compound with a resting hall for the emperor and over 600 satellite pits and tombs have been discovered.
Numerous excavations have been undertaken of the various tombs and pits, and one of the tombs of one of the officials has yielded one of the great treasures of Chinese archaeology – two half-sized bronze chariots with the horses beautifully sculptured and the riders sheltering under a large umbrella.
It is now displayed in one of the halls surrounding the terracotta warriors, but we failed to see it and went upstairs to see all the other discoveries instead of going downstairs to see the chariots.
The terracotta army is situated a couple of miles away on what was the entrance route to the barrow. However this is surely one of the most stupid pieces of megalomania of all time, for the army was totally buried and its position lost. There is a story that all the workmen were put to death immediately after completing their work so they could not reveal to anyone the existence of the army. But however the work was done, the army remained underground, unknown until it was discovered by a peasant digging a well in 1974.
So, does it really deserve a ‘Wow’! I think part of the answer is that there is nothing else of the Han dynasty that has survived in Xian. China is not like Rome, where many buildings have survived, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, or the (reconstructed) Ara Pacis. In China, buildings tended to be of timber and thus little has survived. Thus the fortuitous discovery of the Terracotta Army was like manna from heaven; this is something magnificent and exotic and genuine, something to display to the world about the magnificence and the extravagance of the Han dynasty. And I must confess, the Chinese have got their act together and is all very well presented – though the long walk back from the site to the car park, past long rows of souvenir shops was rather too long for my ageing limbs. But yes, the terracotta warriors are magnificent. I just wish there was rather more of the Han dynasty to display to those who wish to explore China’s amazing past.
On to the Special statues