Back in September, I sat at the back of a talk by Jane Portal, curator of the British Museum’s First Emperor exhibition, where she explained some of the diplomatic, academic and managerial complexities involved in putting the whole thing together.
“Ooh,” I thought, in the manner of a wide-eyed orang-utan. Chinese history isn’t something I know a great deal about, but what’s NOT to like about a whole buried army? And this morning, I finally went for a look-see.
The exhibition is in the old reading room of the British Museum (the reading now being done in swanky style at Kings Cross). This makes for an atmospheric, eerie setting. The low light that protects the ancient relics also greys the pale blue of the reading room’s high dome. There’s something not just churchy about the effect, it’s especially Catholic. Incense, says this former thurifer, would have gone down well.
There was some confusion as we arrived, with a gallery assistant patiently explaining that there was no reason to queue on the stairs. He’d have fared better were the queuers not all engrossed in their audio guide, and it was the guide’s long introduction that seemed the cause of the bottleneck. (The Dr and I braved the thing guideless, and I think did better ‘cos we could nip in between the huddled bunches of other visitors.)
There’s plenty of fab and fascinating things to see; fancy bronze weapons and food bowls, and the establishment of the now familiar Chinese coins, which are round with a square hole in the middle. Many of these objects are new discoveries – indeed, the army itself was only discovered in the mid 1970s.
The terracotta fellas were made to guard China’s first emperor, and part of his mountain-sized tomb. He’d started out as the 13 year-old King of Qin, but his highly trained army with their mass-produced bronze weapons had beaten the neighbouring dominions. This newly swelled nation was still called Qin (pronounced “chin”, hence “China”), but he was now an emperor.
There’s been some debate about the politics of the show, of which I admit I’m only loosely aware. M’colleague Jonathan Clements was kind enough some months ago to tell me about legal texts found in 1975 in the grave of Judge Xi, which, “make it abundantly clear how awful life was under the first emperor”.
The exhibtion didn't mention this - at least as far as I could tell. Apart from gleeful accounts of the conquest of the other dominions, our impressions of the first emperor are gleaned from just two clues. First, following his conquests, he commissioned a big wall with which to keep out baddies. (Not the Great Wall, which came later.) The exhibition briefly mentions that during the building of this wall many conscripts died.
Second, we’re told about his fear of death and determination to outwit eternity. But the tone of this explanation is, I felt, as if the whole enterprise was more an exercise in kingly grandeur than psychotic paranoia.
As the Dr pointed out, the tens of thousands killed in the construction are far more than (we believe) died building the pyramids. It made me think of something I’ve been reading recently, about Hitler and Stalin being no more evil as people than other tyrants in human history. What made their actions worse than Genghis Khan or Caligula (some readers will guess what I have been reading) was having access to modern, industrial processes.
It’s ironic that the army got looted as soon as the emperor had snuffed it. The terracotta fellas now look a bit awkward, their hands grasping long-pinched bronze weapons. There’s something a little sad about the ancient, shattered, carefully reconstructed people – my Western prejudice made me think of Ozymandias.
Arguably what’s been left is the people not the things. The terracotta soldiers seem to be individuals – each with their own fine moustaches and top knots. I’d be interested to know how representative they are of the ordinary people of the day; are their faces those of real, grand faluting officers, or of the craftsmen and their mates. Are these the middle classes commemorated here, or even peasants who happened to be hanging around? I like the possibility that it’s these every day folk left behind to posterity, not the image of the king.
The great king himself ultimately retains his secrets. The penultimate panels explain that Chinese archaeologists won’t excavate the emperor’s tomb for fear of disturbing what’s inside. That’s a very different attitude to the daring, live-television, moustache-twirling archaeology of over here. I can hear the ghost of Sir Mortimer Wheeler muttering, “Pshaaw!” as he rolls his sleeves up… No, I don’t know who is right.
It also means that however modern the discoveries – the terracotta musicians trying to woo flamingos to dance were discovered in 2001 – this isn’t presented as a modern dialogue with ancient history. Rather, the reverence of the setting and care not to ask difficult questions puts up a kind of barrier. Just as we can’t get too close to the terracotta fellas for fear of setting off the alarms, we are not allowed to get too close to this timeless, magic antiquity.
Perhaps that’s most evident in the final part of the exhibition, where there’s a replica of a statue as they think he might originally have been painted. It’s a bright and garish display, even in the muted light, the archer’s armour laquered in something that could almost be plastic. Suddenly the soldiers look comic and tacky.
Tucked away right at the end, I’m not sure you’re actively encouraged to think, “all that stuff you’ve just seen would have looked as garish as this…”. It would have been more effective, surely, to have seen this man of colour in the lead-up to the main display, so that we viewed the figures in real context.
Rather, we’re left to think of these extraordinary objects as muted, uncoloured icons. They are cut off from us in time. And while they remain so untouchably other, they cannot be anything so bothersome as the awful vanity of a tyrant with uncomfortably modern ideas…
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