Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Flower pot men

"You know how you can tell this isn't original footage? It's not in black and white."

Mmm hmm. That and the scenes the film is showing are battles from China's Warring States Period, around 400 BC. I try to keep an open mind, but there are times when I despair of my fellow museum goers.

As it was, I was having a hard time. My iPhone had been confiscated ... well, no, it was in my bag, but I was forbidden from using it to take notes because the attendant couldn't tell if I was actually taking forbidden photographs. In response to my peeved expression, he provided me with a pen and a couple of sheaves of paper. I thanked him for the effort and spun the appendage around in my fingers, trying to recall how to use it. It didn't seem to have a touch pad. Nevertheless, the hassle had just become worth it to record that quote. (For me and for the attendant, since the alternative might have been to say something; we all know that wouldn't have gone well).

I inched away from the couple in question and perused the information boards. The highlight of this exhibit were 10 statues from the 'Terracotta Army'; the 8,000 life sized warriors that were found in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced approximately 'Chin Shih Hwongdee'). They were found in three pits, the largest measuring 14,000 square meters, which were discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. He hit the neck of a terracotta warrior instead of water. In another pit, entire suits of stone armour were buried for the warriors to wear. See, I didn't do badly with my pen. 

At this point in the exhibit, however, the First Emperor was merely a twinkle in some goat herder's eye. Possibly quite literally, since there are debates over his legitimacy. Before his rule, China was a divided land with 7 states warring for power (hence, 'the Era of Warring States' - never let it be said I don't explain events in my blog). Sun Zi's 'The Art of War' dates from this period and observant readers will note it was originally a book, not a Hollywood production. The most aggressive of the states, Qin, had grown rapidly in power due to one of the First Emperor's ancestors, Shang Yang, who embraced foreigners and foreign technologies. American border control could learn much from him. By the First Emperor's father's time, Qin had become so threatening that five states banded together to defeat him in battle. While they won, they never rose again. At the age of 13, Ying Zheng (personal name of Qin Shihuangdi) came to the throne of Qin, kicked everyone's ass and brought China under a single ruler for the first time.

Most of this history is known via a single source, the Shiji document, written by historian Sima Qian. Sima Qian was born 65 years after the First Emperor's death and had no balls; quite literally as he was castrated after irritating his own emperor. Due to the fact he kept the only surviving record of the day, his accuracy can only be verified by archaeological finds. Fortunately, due to a penchant of the times for engraving important events on pots, it is possible to ascertain the truth of much of its content.

Sima Qian did not know about the terracotta warriors whose discovery was a complete surprise. He did describe gardens within the tomb of bronze swans swimming on a sea of mercury, evidence for which has been found during scans and soil samples of the land. The main mound of the First Emperor's tomb remains unexcavated, partly due to concerns for its stability and partly from concerns surrounding the potential damage to the contents when brought into contact with air. The paint on the terracotta army, for instance, was put on natural lacquer which lifts right off if not immediately treated with a superglue compound. Sima Qian did claim a task force of 700,000 labourers was set to build the complex, which started, as was traditional, when the Emperor came to the throne. While this mammoth project was underway, the First Emperor himself searched for the elixir of life and the secret to immortality. I guess there's nothing like a back-up plan.

The purpose of burying 8,000 terracotta soldiers along with you would be for an army in the afterlife. From the Christian standpoint, St Peter was due to be in for quite a surprise. It was undoubtedly an improvement from murdering your actual army and household so they could serve you beyond this mortal coil, and one museum plaque assured me Qin was one of the first houses to abolish this practice. I would have felt more impressed if later boards hadn't revealed that all concubines who had not yet given birth, plus a bunch of the architects, were shut up in the tomb when it was sealed.

The tomb complex, while by far the most famous, was not the First Emperor's only feat during his rule. One of his first ones rather points to an unhappy childhood since it involved returning to his old home of Handen and burying everyone alive. Later acts included the introduction of a single currency and writing script across China and a frenzy of building projects that possibly pointed to mental illness, including large extensions to the Great Wall, roads, canals and dams.

Qin Shihuangdi's plan had been to build a dynasty to last 10,000 generations. In fact, his son flunked it. He kept on and even increased the crushing labour service and taxes of his father, causing a rebellion within four years. The resulting civil war saw the capital burned and parts of the famous tomb looted. When the dust cleared, the Han dynasty started, to be the most famous in China's history. Its principals, however, upheld many of the ones began by Qin Shihuangdi to produce a single, unified, China.

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