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Tony Grist

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The Terracotta Army [Dec. 9th, 2013|10:09 am]
Tony Grist
The terracotta army was drawn up in front of the Chin emperor's enormous tomb in order to defend him against the angry ghosts of the people he had killed and conquered. That's what the experts say, anyway, according to the documentary Channel 4 aired last night. Do they have evidence for this view or are they guessing? I wish documentaries came with footnotes.

The warriors were issued with real weapons- bladed bronze and crossbows powerful enough to send an arrow whizzing through metal, padded cloth and the body inside. I do wonder what sort of garbled idea of an afterlife the Emperor and his wizards entertained. Why should a bodiless ghost be deterred by a golem with a crossbow? Or did the buried warrior become a ghost himself and his real weapons ghostly weapons? Can you stop a ghost with the ghost of a crossbow bolt? Had anyone thought this through?

The Chin Emperor was one of the great bastards of history. His was a terror state- one in which every subject was primed to be a spy and an informer. He created a formidable bureaucracy, build roads, canals and the first version of the Great Wall. Unlike our modern tyrants he got things to stick and his Reich really did last a thousand years. Two, in fact.

The terracotta warriors are a wonder and a horror- artefacts of a system designed to crush the human spirit into conformable, mouldable clay. I can't love them. But then they weren't made to be loved. I find it hard to appreciate them as art either- but that's to assign them to a category that didn't exist at the time of their creation. They were made- the experts tell us- in  small workshops- each workshop identifiable by quirks of design and execution. The same goes for their weapons. Each component part of every weapon is marked with the monogram of its maker, his overseer and the overseer's overseer- right up to the prime minister. This wasn't done out of pride in manfacture (we're told) but so that faulty goods could be traced back to the guilty craftsman and due punishment carried out. This was a culture in which incompetence was a crime to be ranked with theft and rape and murder.

Every face of every warrior is unique. Are they portraits? Were the spirits of actual individuals bonded to the imagos?

We have dug up a small proportion of what we now know to exist. The pits contain not only soldiers but scribes, acrobats, musicians- all the people it took to keep the Chin Emperor occupied and amused. Some day, when we're sure it can be done without damaging the contents, we'll break into the tomb itself- where the scriptures say the Empire of Chin is reproduced in miniature with a night sky full of golden stars and rivers and seas of mercury.

It is human and admirable to want to preserve and restore all this. Equally human- if not so admirable- to feel an impulse to take a big heavy spade and smash all those golems back into the earth from which they were made.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2013-12-09 10:27 am (UTC)
That programme was particularly long on atmospherics, short on information, I thought. It took half an hour to let slip that the weapons were made of bronze, and never commented at all about how it had survived in such beautiful condition.

Likewise, I was baffled by how they knew some of the things they were asserting: but there seems to be a large quantity of written material from the period. Really? That amazes me almost more than the terracotta warriors. But if everything was labelled - weapons, component parts, dead workers - then I see it could be so.

A fascinating and frustrating programme, I thought.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 10:50 am (UTC)
TV documentaries are often like this. It takes them an hour to give us five minutes worth of information.
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[User Picture]From: idahoswede
2013-12-09 11:44 am (UTC)
They mentioned also now finding people like terracotta jugglers and musicians. I will assume they haven't been properly restored yet because they weren't shown, but I would so love to have seen them.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2013-12-09 11:59 am (UTC)
Yes, I was sorry not to have more about that. I also wondered whether there were any women in the terracotta afterlife...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 12:25 pm (UTC)
Yet another thing the programme didn't address.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 12:21 pm (UTC)
Me too. We got a passing glimpse of some terracotta water birds.
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[User Picture]From: tamnonlinear
2013-12-09 12:04 pm (UTC)
Killer terracotta cabbage patch kids.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 12:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah!
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From: artkouros
2013-12-09 01:09 pm (UTC)
I got to see some of them back in the 70's in Dallas. The exhibit was primarily about old Chinese science. I remember a large washing basin - when you ran your hand around the edge it vibrated like a crystal goblet, and the vibrations caused the water to spray up and wash your face.

The terracotta army is definitely a step up from burying your actual army, IMHO.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 02:28 pm (UTC)
That washing basin sounds brilliant.
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[User Picture]From: faunhaert
2013-12-09 03:17 pm (UTC)
i was relieved there were no skulls in the bodies
like the earlier burials

defiantly a way to keep people busy
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-09 03:23 pm (UTC)
No rest for the wicked (or anybody else) in the Chin Empire!
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[User Picture]From: qatsi
2013-12-09 09:15 pm (UTC)
I was a bit disappointed they didn't have anything to say about the moat of mercury that was supposed to have surrounded the complex. Even if there's not current evidence for it I would have thought it would have had a mention.

A colleague expressed incredulity a few years ago at the pace of construction for the Beijing Olympics. I pointed out that you can do more or less anything much quicker when you can just crush any opposition.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-10 11:35 am (UTC)
Yes, they avoided talking about the tomb itself. Which is a pity because they didn't seem to be strapped for time.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2013-12-10 04:20 am (UTC)
Equally human- if not so admirable- to feel an impulse to take a big heavy spade and smash all those golems back into the earth from which they were made.

Some years ago, asakiyume wrote a gorgeous, painful poem called "The Qin Golem," about a terra-cotta warrior brought to life, trying to turn itself back to clay. I can't find it online anywhere to link, but it was published in Not One of Us #41.

Edited at 2013-12-10 04:21 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-12-10 11:40 am (UTC)
I think there's a good deal of black magic about that site. The archaeologists say they're holding back from digging the tomb itself for fear of doing damage, but I think they're also a little afraid of it.
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