Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Terracotta Army

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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