One of the things on my bucket list is going to see the Terracotta Army, 8,000 extraordinarily life-like terracotta figures found buried close to the massive tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who unified the country in 221BC. I’ve always loved Chinese art, especially the scrolls, ink landscapes and clay sculptures of people, horses and other animals.
But an army of life sized soldiers, all buried upright, must be a fascinating sight indeed.
The Terracotta Army is a form of funerary art buried with the First Emperor, whose purpose was to protect him in his afterlife. An extraordinary feat of mass-production, each figure was given an individual personality although they were not intended to be portraits.
The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals.
Current estimates are that there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried.
Since 1998, figures of terracotta acrobats, bureaucrats, musicians and bronze birds have also been discovered on site.
They were designed to entertain the Emperor in his afterlife and they are of crucial importance to our understanding of his attempts to control the world even in death.
Then my interest in all this was piqued by a recent spate of articles in the papers. According to new research, Ancient Greeks artists could have travelled to China 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s historic trip to the east and helped design the Terracotta Army.
This startling claim is based on two key pieces of evidence: First, European DNA discovered at sites in China’s Xinjiang province from the time of the First Emperor in the Third Century BC. Second, the sudden appearance of life-sized statues; before this time, depictions of humans in China were figurines of up to about 20cm.
The theory – outlined in a documentary, The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China, which was shown on the BBC Two channel in the U.K. – is that Shi Huang and Chinese artists may have been influenced by the arrival of Greek statues in central Asia in the century following Alexander the Great, who led an army into India. But the researchers also speculated that Greek artists could have been present when the soldiers of the Terracotta Army were made.
Another piece of evidence of a connection to Greece has come from a number of exquisite bronze figurines of birds excavated from the tomb site. These were made with a lost wax technique known in Ancient Greece and Egypt.
I am now keener than ever to visit the site and, meanwhile, to watch the documentary, if I can get a hold of it. Any ideas?
Meanwhile, I will include a charming short animated video on the subject.