The Ancient Greeks and the Terracotta Army

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.

 

Getty images
Getty images

 

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.

50 thoughts on “The Ancient Greeks and the Terracotta Army

  1. Fascinating how even more details are being discovered at the sites, and to imagine that ancient Greeks might have had a hand in the work. The video was good too.
    I have always regretted that I didn’t make it to Xian, when I visited Beijing.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. We went to China a few years ago and I can honestly say that visiting the terracotta warriors was amazing. We had seen the exhibition in the British Museum when some of the statues were brought to London a few years earlier, but seeing the warriors in situ is a unique experience. Do your best to go and see them – you will never regret it.

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  3. You SHALL have to arrange it as it is a unique and unforgettable experience. Greek artists on the site? Wonderful discovery. I remember when I discovered the head of a Gaul that had been made in Pakistan: it seems incredible that these people knew each others well before us. And collaborated!

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      1. Yes, three months, but when we think of the distance and the difficulties of the “road” – as there were no roads! – and the seemingly differences of culture and civilisation, and language, three months are nothing! The whole issue is to teach ourselves and our children and/or grand-children that these people were moving, talking to each others and were not enclosed in one place, being one “pure” race. Interesting to be reminded of these facts nowadays…

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  4. Fascinating. Apparently there is a Greek connection in India, shown by a style of statue of the Buddha. A connection to China is quite plausible. Good to see art having a dominant role!
    Yes, go see them!!

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  5. It is indeed a fascinating subject and a place I wish I’d had the time to visit. The Australian Aborigines of the north survived the diseases brought by Europeans because they had traded with the people of S E Asia and built up immunity to disease. Thanks for the post.

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  6. I will never get to China. 😦 But, I was in Chicago this past weekend and surprised to discover the Terracotta Warriors were there. I was pleasantly shocked. I have long been fascinated with them. I’m sure it does not compare to the experience of being there but it was closer than I ever thought I would get. It was if I was looking into the faces of someone who lived over 2000 years ago. They are impressive on their own. I can’t imagine the thrill of being in China and seeing them in their full glory.

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  7. Glad I popped in today, interesting post.
    I have just found a copy of the program, although from a dodgy source. If you send you an email I can put it up of Google drive for you to download, it’s about 1Gb. I’ll be watching it later.

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  8. This is fascinating information. It’s history like this, discovered so many many years later, that helps us realize how insignificant our own historic worries are. It helps me calm down a little bit after this last election, if that makes any sense. I mean, this China emperor had an ego larger then all of our presidents combined! 😬 Seriously though, thanks for educating us all on the statues. I hope you get to see them in person sometime.

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  9. I also saw the documentary quite recently on Youtube. I wasn’t so keen on the way they worded the theory, although I now can’t remember what it was about it that rubbed me up the wrong way. It’s not all that bizarre an idea, although I couldn’t seen what it need involve any individual Greek artists making their way to China. As far as I recall, they didn’t mention it in the program, but I believe there was already Greek influence in China through Buddhism at around that time. (I heard the first emperor wasn’t a fan of Buddhism, but that presumably means who knew something about it.)

    Anyway, I remember reading that the highly-stylized statues of the Buddha you see in places like China and Japan evolved from Gandharan originals which were themselves derived to some extent from Greek models because of influence dating from the time of Alexander the Great. It was very interesting to see the pictures of the statues arranged side by side. The influence was very clear.

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  10. My son has been interested in this since he was about…7 years old? (Though he learned the gory details when he was a bit older.) He’s proper obsessed with it now and wants to go there. He’d love to see this documentary! I know some just by learning with him – about the army, how/why it was made, and about Qin Shi Huang Di himself. Facinating. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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