|Photo by Frank Kehren, used under Creative Commons License|
Presented to the Club by Ronald Trabulsi on Monday Evening, May 13, 2013
My topic tonight is one on which I’m certainly not an expert. In fact, some of you may know a good deal to add, so I’m looking forward to our discussion after my talk. But I have been fascinated for several years by the life-size terra cotta warriors that have been unearthed in the last quarter century in China and by the man who ordered them built.
These are four miniatures of them produced by the National Geographical Society that my wife gave me for my last birthday.
Their story and that of the Emperor who ordered their creation – so he could take his army with him for protection after he died – because he clearly believed you could take it with you is one of history’s remarkable tales.
The future First Emperor of China was born in 259 B.C. He was the eldest son and heir of the King of “Chin,” spelled QIN or sometimes Q’in. His mother was a concubine and he was given the name of Zheng which means upright or correct.
His father’s domain was along one of the great rivers in western China, the Wa, spelled Wei, which flows to the east into the Yellow River, which then flows farther east to the Yellow Sea. The kingdom was about 500 miles southwest of today’s Beijing.
The father had expanded the kingdom somewhat, but the principal expansion came in the years after the death of the father when Zheng became king of Qin in 247 B.C. at the age of thirteen.
Over the next two and a half decades, the armies of the young Qin defeated the forces of the neighboring six states so that by 221 B.C. he controlled much of what is today’s China.
Each of the defeated states had a separate history, culture, and beliefs, as well as a king and a ruling class. The land covered was so extensive that there were different climates and agriculture as well – not to mention elephants and tigers in some areas.
When the young Qin completed his military campaign he is reported to have proclaimed – with modesty, of course, Quote, Insignificant as I am, I have raised troops to punish the rebellious princes, and thanks to the sacred power of our ancesters all six kings have been chastised as they deserved. Unquote.
At this point he chose the title of First Emperor to make clear he was far beyond a mere king and was clearly first of all in the realm. Incidentally, that title was retained by Chinese rulers until the 20th century. It certainly had an appeal.
The First Emperor was described by a visitor thusly: "He has a waspish nose, eyes like slits, a chicken breast, and a voice like a jackal. He is merciless, with the heart of a tiger or wolf. When in difficulty he willingly humbles himself, when successful he swallows men up without a scruple. Should he succeed in conquering the world, we shall all become his captives."
This was not an unreasonable judgment. The First Emperor had become known for his ruthless elimination of defeated armies. Even those who had surrendered on a promise of safety were often slaughtered. It was estimated that by the time of unification over a million men had been killed or taken prisoner.
Faced with the challenge of ruling over what was now a vast domain the First Emperor created an innovative plan. The realms that were conquered had each been ruled by an hereditary king who regularly had fought with his neighboring states, leading to years of warfare.
The First Emperor abolished this feudal system and divided the territory into 36 provinces, each with a governor, thus establishing a civil administration system that also lasted until the 20th century.
To prevent further warfare, it was decreed that all weapons were to be brought to the capital where they were melted down. (There clearly was no NRA in the kingdom.) Further, the nobility from each of the subjugated realms was required to move to the capital.
One hundred and twenty thousand wealthy families were brought from all over the empire. They built palaces, gardens and temples so that the capital became a real center of the kingdom.
It might also be mentioned that musical instruments and beautiful women captured during the conquest were also kept in the capital in specially constructed pavilions and courtyards.
Convicts were sent north and south to subdue and colonize border areas. Many free families were sent to colonize and farm underpopulated areas in return for twelve years exemption from forced labor service.
All weights and measures were standardized and all carriages were to have axles of the same size. The script was also standardized as was the coinage.
Massive public works projects were initiated. The Great Wall was expanded into new areas, canals were built to improve irrigation, over 4,000 miles of roads were built with their construction standardized and appropriate for the mandated carriage size.
In the year 213 B.C. the First Emperor decreed that all legal officials who had failed to deliver justice should go north to work on the Great Wall.
And then, in the same year, 213 B.C., the First Emperor held a great banquet attended by 100 scholars. At the banquet, according to legend, one scholar criticized the establishment of a civil administration and also the failure to offer land and territories to the First Emperor’s relatives as had been done in the past. Other changes from past practices were also criticized.
The response to this biting of the hand that was feeding them was a decree to destroy all historical records from throughout the kingdom other than those recording the deeds of the First Emperor. There was to be no keeping of the ancient songs, historical records, or writings. They were to be confiscated and burned.
It was decreed further that, if 30 days after the order was issues, the owners of these books have not had them destroyed; they should have their faces tattooed and be condemned to hard labor at the Great Wall. The only books that could be saved were those dealing with prophesies, medicine, and agriculture.
Thus did the First Emperor try to erase the past and any criticism of him as not meeting past achievements.
But his concerns were not just about the past – or even the present – but of the future.
Our First Emperor tried very hard to avoid dying, and he sampled many different potions created for him by Court alchemists. It is thought these may have included mercury, and that possibly he ultimately died of mercury poisoning. But from the time he became King of the Qin state in 246 B.C., he started the construction of his tomb complex.
When he became Emperor in 221 B.C. the design for his tomb seems to have expanded. Since the military campaigns had ended, large numbers of conscripts were available to work on the project.
And what a project is was!
The tomb site itself had been known for thousands of years both from the Chinese written record and from the tomb mound in the shape of a square that had long been visible aboveground.
But it wasn’t until 1974, about 40 years ago, when a new well was needed in a small rural commune that the villagers digging the well struck something hard and started to unearth the terra cotta soldiers of the Buried Army, part of the First Emperor’s great tomb.
The work of excavation is not completed, and it is estimated it will take decades, as new discoveries are made year by year, and new techniques of conservation and scientific research are introduced and perfected. It is expected it will take longer to excavate the complex than the approximately 36 years it took to build it.
The Buried Army is located about a mile from the tomb mound and the entire complex is now estimated to cover over 19 square miles. One description says the area is about the size of Manhattan.
The terra cotta army is buried in four pits located to the east of the tomb mound and outside the walls of the tomb complex. It is as if it were placed there to guard the tomb from attack from the east, where all the states the First Emperor had conquered were.
The first pit is 252 yards long and contains the main army, estimated at more than 6,000 life-size figures. They were arranged in battle formation in rows of four behind chariots and armed with crossbows, poles, or swords.
Pit number 2 has cavalry and infantry units as well as war chariots, and is thought to represent a military guard. There are figures of both standing and kneeling archers. Again, it is all life-sized.
Pit 3 is the command pit, with high-ranking officers and a war chariot.
Pit 4 was empty, probably unfinished because of the First Emperor’s untimely death.
Together the four pits seem to represent a complete garrison and the total number of warriors and horses is estimated at about 8,000.
The enormous scale of this buried army as well as the quality of the representation and manufacture of its conscripts is astounding. While each figure is unique, the army is a great and early feat of mass production.
A small and quite limited repertoire of body parts was produced using molds. The parts were then joined together in a multitude of combinations, with details worked by hand afterward. Then the whole figure was painted. This made possible the tremendous variety of costumes, hairstyles, hand positions or facial features that can be seen. Warriors were stamped with the name and unit of the foreman in order to ensure quality control.
It certainly should also be noted that the First Emperor could hardly expect to enter the next world without a bureaucracy to run his afterlife empire. There was a group of terra cotta civil officials and scribes found in another nearby pit.
And, finally, there was entertainment provided for the Emperor’s afterlife. Twelve terra cotta acrobats and strongmen (weightlifters) have been found And then in a pit with a diverted underground river there were terra cotta musicians playing music to life-size bronze water birds. The rold of the birds was apparently to dance to the music to entertain the Emperor!
But in the end he died and was buried like all other mortals. No question, though, his story and that of his terra cotta kingdom will have a prominent place in history.