Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The First Emperor

Terracotta Warriors

Over 2000 years ago, around 246 BC, a thirteen year old boy came to the throne of a small state called Qin (pronounced ‘Chin’), in what is now Western China. Shortly afterwards, he began building himself a tomb of massive proportions, which eventually covered 56 square kilometres. Throughout his short reign – about 25 years – he spent a lot of energy looking for an elixir which would give him eternal life. On one such expedition irony caught up with him and he died, and was interred in the massive tomb.

Emperor Qin Shihuang also spent his reign doing other important things, such as conquering many neighbouring states and pulling together the nation that eventually became modern China (from 'Qin'), developing a very detailed and specific rule of law (known as 'Legalism'), reputedly burning books and a few scholars as well, fathering about 20 sons, and - just by the way - building The Great Wall of China.The Qin Dynasty which he founded lasted only 15 years, but created a new political and cultural order that endured for the next 2000 years, more or less creating the China we knew up until the 20th century. Some say he was a fearsome, cruel and ruthless tyrant; others credit him with far-reaching reforms and the basis for stability and unity.

But he seems to have had rather a complex about immortality. The tomb he had built re-created the emperor's entire known world in an 'Eternal City', including quarters for servants, and even a private zoo - all made from terracotta and bronze, life-sized - everything the Emperor could possibly need in the afterlife. To protect this mausoleum palace, he also had created a vast army of terracotta warriors, estimated to number 8,000, complete with horses and carriages.

Your blogger on The Great Wall (ages ago - 1994)
The mausoleum itself was described in ancient texts, but nobody knew that the warrior army existed until, in 1974, a small village near Xi'an in Western China needed a new well dug. The villagers were startled to find heads, and then bodies, and then the hundreds of warriors. To date more than 1900 warriors have been unearthed, but it is estimated than in the pits are 8,000 soldiers, 140 chariots, 560 chariot horses and 116 cavalry horses - all life sized. They are all armed, moreover, with thousands of weapons, all real and all sharp. Over 40,000 weapons and arrowheads have already been recovered. The pits contain the army arranged in typical combat formation, defended with archers armed with crossbows. Some pits contain formations of cross bow units, some standing, some kneeling, all ready for action, frozen in the same stances given to them by their sculptors over 2000 years ago.

There are ten main figure types making up the First Emperor's terracotta army, and a single example of each is presently on display in the Art Gallery of NSW, a long way from their dark pit home in Western China, but lit evocatively in an inner room of the gallery. The exhibition lasts until 13 March 2011. One of the figures is an Armoured General, larger than the others and wearing a winged cap, armour and ribbons. Only nine generals have been discovered so far, so this is 'the big man'.

An Armoured General leads the exhibition
The other figures include an armoured military officer, a light infantryman, and armoured infantryman, a standing archer (facing sideways to fix the observer with an uncanny stare, though now missing his crossbow), an armoured kneeling archer, a cavalryman and his cavalry horse, a charioteer and a chariot horse. Not only are the figures life sized, they are curiously expressive, each one a gifted work of art. And to think that there are 8,000 of them - each different.

The tomb and the warriors are built at the base of Mt Li, as recorded in 'The Grand Scribe's Records', 89 BC:
'As soon as the First Emperor became king of Qin, excavations and building had been started at Mt Li, while after he won the empire more than 700,000 conscripts from all parts of the country worked there.'
The tomb proper is a rammed earth construction, a four-sided pyramid with three stepped levels, and forms a massive artificial hill lying between the Wei River and Mt Li. It once stood 120 metres high but is now somewhat eroded. The tomb mound itself has not yet been excavated, although it is described in detail in 'The Grand Scribe's Records'. It is said that all concubines of the Emperor who had no sons were buried with him; and that the workmen who knew the contents of the tomb were also sealed up in it. Such stories produce in us an exciting frisson, but may possibly be exaggerated. The mound has always been obvious, but it was not until the local farmers digging the well in 1974 discovered the entombed terracotta warriors that the incredible extent of the complex was realised.

In 206 BC an invading horde of Hans desecrated the tomb and pits, burnt some of the warriors and made off with some of the armoury buried with them. Originally all the figures were armed, and the horses and soldiers were painted. 

A Kneeling Archer at the rear
But even more fascinating than the creation of this incredible palace and army to guard it are the beliefs about immortality which prompted the whole enterprise. Ideas about immortality at the time were dualist (as we'd say, after Descartes): it was thought that there were two spiritual elements associated with the body - po, the life force that kept the body active, and hun, the expressive, emotional soul. It was believed that the two elements separated at death, with the hun going off to paradise or, if unlucky, to the gloomy 'Yellow Springs' (not as bad as Hell, but dismal nevertheless). As to the po, it would stay with the body provided that the burial arrangements were properly taken care of. If not, a ghost spirit might emerge to haunt and cause harm. 

There was a great emphasis on immortality. In some cases, it was thought that if the body was well enough preserved, this was a form of immortality. This led to some bizarre attempts to preserve the body, including in one extreme case of encasing it in a sheath of jade. There was also a belief in another form of immortality, somewhat closer to that in the Christian canon: the person left the world to to live as an immortal, 'transcending' or 'ascending' this life. These people might still be seen inhabiting the earth. There are references to the 'Eight Immortals' in Chinese mythology. My pick is the story of an Immortal who rode thousands of miles every day on a white mule, and at the end of the journey would fold the mule up like a piece of paper and keep it in his pocket.

But I digress. The First Emperor did not, it seems seek to become one of these Immortals, but rather to prolong his life on earth. Keeping the body alive forever was said to be possible through drinking magic elixirs, sometimes mixed from gold and pearls. During the First Emperor's time the necessary elixirs were thought to be located on islands in the East China Sea, and he sent a big expedition - consisting of thousands of young boys and girls - off to find them. They never came back. The islands don't exist (unless they are Japan) and a second group of 'Recipe Gentlemen' (magicians) sent to continue the search were presumed eaten by savage whales.

Painting of The Great Wall of China

We're not sure exactly what the First Emperor may have ingested in his quest for immortality, but the favoured ingredients of the day were those which were considered incorruptible - gold, mercury, jade, sulphur, cinnabar, orpiment, quartz and lead: distinctly poisonous, I would have thought. The herbal remedies, called 'herbs of deathlessness' in the literature, were equally varied: mushrooms and fungi, ferns, tree fruits such as pine nuts, onions and garlic, asparagus, lilies, ginger, lotuses, white-flowered peonies, magnolia, bamboo, cassia, citrus, ginger, ginseng, chrysanthemum and about a hundred others. My favourite story of the successful use of the 'herbs of deathlessness' concerns one sage who ate nothing but pine kernels. He grew hairs 'seven digits long' all over his body, his eyes took on a square shape, and he could overtake galloping horses. Sounds like some of the claims made today by herbal remedy salesmen.

Since he lived so long ago, it is impossible to know what The First Emperor was really like, although the stories have it that he was terrified of death and searched incessantly for immortality. It appears he may have been a workaholic: it is said that he would not sleep until he had read a daily quota of 30 kilos of official documents (I know a few people like that). In a modern novel (1985) author Jean Devi depicts the Emperor trying every available remedy and still complaining: 
'Since I gave up eating grain and chose only dried meat and jujubes instead of juicy roast meat, I have had terrible stomach pains. Breathing exercises make me dizzy and give me ringing in the ears. And despite my diet my bowels don't function'.
This bears a remarkable resemblance to me on a Weight Watchers diet. 

Terracotta Warriors, walking out of the mists of time

Information from the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition info sheet; and 'China's First Emperor and his Terracotta Warriors' by Frances Wood.

1 comment:

  1. hay i saw them and i was amazed and it was interesting to see them i really liked the all of them and l liked how you could see some of the paint on them and i liked all the stuff they had on display and it was cool to and thats all i have to say.