The tomb of China’s first emperor is renowned for its buried army of terracotta warriors. Lucia Marchini tours a new exhibition exploring the story behind these archaeological celebrities.
When China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC, he was buried with an elaborate entourage, famously including an army of thousands of life-size terracotta soldiers poised in battle formation. They lay hidden until March 1974, when a group of farmers drilling a well came across some large pottery fragments just outside Xi’an, Shaanxi. Now a selection of the warriors has been brought to Liverpool as the star attractions in a major exhibition illuminating the emperor’s world and his legacy.
Though its focus remains on Qin Shi Huang and his magnificent burial complex, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors reaches much further back in time, setting the famous finds in the wider context of ancient Chinese dynasties. Starting in the Spring and Autumn period in the 8th century BC, artefacts drawn from across Shaanxi province (including some recent finds) track the rise of the Qin dynasty out of the Warring States and the traditions they upheld.
It is in burial customs that we can most clearly see continuity through the centuries. For the elite, materials like jade and bronzes were highly prized and were used to create ritual objects. Inscribed bronze vessels, kept in family shrines, honoured the dead and carried offerings of food and drink for ancestors. For those of humbler means, pottery was used instead, often decorated to resemble the costly metal. These practices, already common in the Spring and Autumn period, continued into the Qin dynasty. In 1999, a huge bronze ding (cauldron) with ornate carvings and hefty handles was found at the First Emperor’s burial site, on top of a pit with terracotta strongmen and acrobats. At 212kg, it is the largest ritual vessel uncovered at the site, and provides a glimpse into life at the Qin court, where it is thought the lifting of such heavy bronzes would have formed part of the entertainments, along with music played on bells and lithophones.
As for jade, the precious stone adorned the coffins of the rich and powerful, often in the form of bi discs decorated with dragon motifs, or even – and much more rarely – in the form of shoe soles. Only two pairs of jade soles are known from China, and the pair on display is from the mausoleum of Duke Jing, a ruler of the Qin state between c.567 and 537 BC. His burial is the largest from before the Qin dynasty, and contained large numbers of bronzes, jades, horses, and sacrificed men and women – a potent expression of power, perhaps intended as competition with his counterparts in rival states. In both cases, though, he was surpassed a few centuries later by the First Emperor.
While the Qin dynasty maintained many traditional practices, it was also a time of great change. For more than two centuries from 475 BC, there was much conflict between the seven major states. This Warring States period ended with the Qin wars of conquest, which saw the Qin dynasty and their king unify China under imperial rule for the first time. Drawing inspiration from Legalist philosophy, Qin Shi Huang brought about a series of reforms, as one decree on a bronze plaque issued in 221 BC relates: ‘In the 26th year of Qin, the Emperor unified China. The world is peaceful and the Emperor commanded the prime ministers to standardise the weights and measures in order to clear the confusion.’ There is more material evidence for this new system: a bronze shovel, for example, measured the sheng – a unit of capacity – and standardised bronze and pottery weights survive. Many of these carry inscriptions instructing people to comply with the standard measures. Coinage was unified too: instead of the various spade- and knife-shaped coins produced by each state, the Ban Liang – a round coin with a square hole – introduced by the Qin state became the standard currency until the Han dynasty.
Despite his apparent dominion over so many aspects of life, Qin Shi Huang was still aware of the threat of rival states in the east, a threat that warranted a display of military might even in the afterlife. So, in his 56km2 burial site, he amassed a varied terracotta army in pits towards the east to face these enemies. It is not just the sheer size of the army that is impressive, but also the level of detail, which becomes clear with a close look at the figures on display. Each has its own individual features, hairstyle, and expression, as well as traces of the natural and sophisticated synthetic pigments used to paint them.
These human figures are not the only inhabitants of the tomb: cavalry horses and other animals appear too. The animal world played an important part in ancient Chinese culture, with roaring tigers adorning war drums, turtles carved on steps, and ducks lending their shape to belt buckles. Birds like geese, cranes, and swans enriched gardens as places of pleasure. Qin Shi Huang created a version of an imperial garden for the afterlife in a pit near his mausoleum, where 46 bronze birds have been discovered along with 15 terracotta musicians. Animals, as well as armies, also feature in later lavish burials. The fourth ruler of the Han dynasty Emperor Jing (r.157-141 BC), for instance, was buried with a veritable menagerie – hundreds of small, naturalistic pottery models of male and female cattle, pigs, goats, horses, dogs, and brightly painted hens and red roosters – to serve as a food supply for eternity.
China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors runs until 28 October at the World Museum, Liverpool. Tickets cost £14.50 for adults (concessions are available). Visit www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/terracottawarriors for more information.
This review appeared in CA 337.