Building the Perfect Army (Out of Clay)

Written on December 3, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

There are plenty of good reasons to visit London: the wonderful weather, the fine cuisine, to buy me a beer. But better perhaps than all these combined might be to take in the ongoing Exhibit at the British Museum on the First Emperor and his Terracotta Army. Not only have the official reviews been glowing,  but the blogosphere has also been near unanimous in its praise.

WarriorsIn 1974, several laborers working near Xi’an inadvertently made the archaeological discovery of the century: more than 7000 life-size terracotta figures, a buried army to guard and fight for the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in the afterlife. As a tourist attraction, that afterlife has been vigorous if (by some 2200 years) slightly delayed.

A number of years ago, I happened to travel to Xi’an, the old Imperial capital and the eastern anchor of the Silk Road. Much of the Emperor’s Mausoleum complex remains unexcavated, although under an unprepossessing hillock (as recent discoveries suggest) are more riches to come. It is generally well-known that each face is distinct, that each figure represents a "substitute" so that the Emperor’s security detail not have had to be buried alive and thus deprive the earthly Empire of its army. Walking around the room coming face-to-face with lifesize replicas of an army amassed more than two millenia ago is, to say the least, an extraordinary thing. It has something like the sense of frozen immediacy that greets the visitor at Pompeii: a feeling that one is looking upon a scene, not preserved, but interrupted. One ends up spending (well, I did) rather a long time examining individual soldiers at length since it is such a unique encounter with a real past.

I was interested to learn, then, that the Terracotta warriors are not, in fact, actual replicas of individuals. Instead, "each sculpture of the Qin army can be regarded as an aggregate of stylistic and expressive components with varying degrees of differentiation" according to Ladislav Kesner in his interesting article "Likeness of No One: (Re)presenting the First Emperor’s Army" published in 1995 in The Art Bulletin (77:1) who raises a number of interesting points about the assembled figures. While the faces are all distinct, they each belong to one of eight archetypes. These (presumably) embody the ideal qualities of a soldier: strength, discipline and so on. This explains Kesner’s parenthetical ploy: they do not represent an existing army, so much as present a better one.   

This reminded me of the dictum made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, who commented to angry US troops: "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." Oh ho ho! Not so Emperor Qin! He made sure his afterlife army was indeed the army he might wish to have. Kesner’s thesis makes sense to me. The effort required to erect the mausoleum and provide it with an army took at least a decade, and possibly much longer, involving up to three quarter of a million laborers. Each warrior had a fully functional weapon, and they were set up in neat, disciplined rows, divided by rank, position and so on. That raises the interesting question of whether the terracotta warriors were not, therefore, a practical response to the problem of burying 8,000 men alive – it has been widely speculated that the surviving workers were interred with the Emperor when he died. Instead, it was motivated by a desire to improve upon the inadequacies presented by a "human" army.

Anyway, if you happen to be traveling to London, I recommend a visit.


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