Army of Individuals
by Han Boshi
The Terracotta Warriors
The vast number of terracotta sculptures buried with the self-declared First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (Qin Shi Huangdi) were intended to protect the deceased emperor in the afterlife and announce his importance and power on arrival. They have instead become a standing testimony to the artistic talents and craftsmanship of the Chinese 200 years before the beginning of the common era, in much the same way that the pyramids have conveyed the incredible talents and ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians ahead of the significance of the Pharaohs. They reveal an artistry no less dazzling than that of their classical European counterparts, an eastern classicism to parallel the art of Greece and Rome.
There’s the armoured general, his face etched with experience. The lines stand out on his forehand and you can count the strands of hair in his beard. His broad shoulders, paunch and strong legs match the authority of his face and in his stance. A horse stands alert: its ears pricked forward, nostrils flared, ready for action. Then there’s the archer, captured in the moment after he has released his bow. His eyes follow the arrow’s trajectory. Legs parted, chin slightly raised, shoulders drawn back, he is the epitome of grace and elegance. Each piece makes a statement completely at odds with what we now think of as mass production.
The roughly 10,000 life-sized sculptures were designed and sculpted individually, each with its own face, hair, clothing, weaponry (real weapons added to the sculptures) and personality. These unique features were added onto base frames that were constructed in methods resembling modern assembly line production. The sculptures were originally brightly painted, augmenting their individual character, but sadly the colours have not survived exhumation from the necropolis surrounding the tomb site. The lacquer covering the paint can curl in just fifteen seconds once exposed to Xi'an's dry air and flakes off in less than five minutes. We can only imagine the riot of colour that must have been.
While the emperor's legacy may be in serious doubt—his ability to marshal people to work on enormous projects like his mausoleum notwithstanding—that of the designers and artisans of the terracota sculptures still being uncovered today is not. An "army" of roughly 7000 labourers and artisans combined to create these figures. During his rule, the emperor's generals united much of modern China and ended over 200 years of wars between competing states (referred to as the Warring States period). He brought the combined region into a single administrative system to ensure a common experience across the entire region, including standardising weights and measures. He built new roads and also destroyed many existing internal walls that had been constructed to protect one state from another. These are all laudable achievements. But they are heavily outweighed by his legacy as a tyrant and a madman (the latter perhaps a symptom of his persistent attempts to extend his life with alchemy).
In an attempt to standardise people's thinking he banned Confucianism and other schools of philosophy, ending a golden age of free thought. He ordered the burning of most books, denying future generations of the wisdom and philosophy of past generations. He replaced the internal walls with a unified barrier on the northern border in an attempt to dissuade "barbarian" raids, which would eventually become what we know today as the Great Wall of China. The project came at an enormous cost in human life (some estimates put the number as high as one million deaths) and lost productivity, but produced only dubious benefits.
Trade with the outsiders was an important part of the border economy, the border gates remained open and people on the border were often friendlier with the outsiders than they were with the central government. Eventually the "barbarians" successfully invaded the country and ruled it for nearly 100 years. The emperor's support and advancement of a political philosophy similar to modern Fascism led quickly to resentment across the country, stifling of innovation and creativity, and many assassination and coup attempts. As a direct result and despite claims that he was creating a great dynasty that would last thousands of years, the Qin dynasty was overthrown after less than 15 years in power, ushering in the 400+-year -long Han dynasty and a period of philosophical revitalisation and rebirth.
Within the mausoleum, the sculptures were carefully placed in formations to match military strategy. One can clearly make out the application of Sun Zi's (Master Sun) advice to armies, passed on to current generations in The Art of War, which is believed to predate the sculptures by several centuries. He advocated for a hard offensive edge backed up by a strong defence. Following that strategy, one finds in the first pit of sculptures three rows of archers, used to make the first offensive attack. But immediately behind them are 11 solid rows of fully armoured warriors, prepared to step forward and take on incoming forces and to protect the first line. These soldiers are joined by horse-drawn chariots ready to penetrate deep into enemy ranks to find their weak spots. The horses have been designed and sculptured to portray powerful and majestic animals.
The second pit is arranged similarly, with crossbowmen out front, arranged in staggering formation to allow for a continuous flow of arrows despite long loading times, and a large contingent of armoured chariots and single-rider cavalry. Additional chariots are placed to allow commanders to get directly into the field of battle. The third pit represents the command post. If it weren't buried, one could easily imagine the intent was to both celebrate successful military strategy and provide a model to future armies.
Other pits provide a glimpse into aspects of life (or afterlife) in China. There are scholars and clerks with tablets for writing, and even a group of terracotta acrobats to entertain the emperor. Experts have suggested these acrobats represent a sharing of cultures between China and the cultures south of China, from modern-day Burma.
One gets the sense, looking at the sculptures, that the artists were engaged in a tacit rebellion. Where the emperor intended these pieces as a celebration of his greatness, they portray instead a celebration of individuals in their diversity. A modern commander-in-chief looks at soldiers as interchangeable, but these artists took special effort to make clear that each person is portrayed as an individual, serving their role. Every role is carefully studied and presented, no one elevated above another (excluding the obligatory exalted space left for the emperor to occupy).
The emperor's poor reputation after his death led to attacks on his mausoleum that damaged and destroyed many of the sculptures. Whole pits were set aflame in protest at the end of tyrannical rule. But a large army of warriors survived, preserved in the earth, and were lost to antiquity until their 1974 rediscovery. Where the emperor’s tyranny and hubris have now faded with him into historical footnotes, the art he commissioned has emerged as an expression of human creativity, thought and ingenuity.Return to Essays