Z’s day out

Yesterday I went with the society wot I’m chairman of to the British Museum, to see the First Emperor exhibition. It was wonderful, do go if you have a chance. They’ve sold out of pre-booked tickets until December I gather, but there are some available on the door each day (go early) or book for early next year.

The organiser passed round various press cuttings on the coach, including one from I know not which newspaper, where the reviewer said rather grumpily that he (or she) found the terracotta figures something of a disappointment and, although it was an impressive exhibition, the main feeling at the end was that the regime was a triumph of mass-production. Another, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic.

I agree with the second. I loved it. I found the figures incredibly moving. They were indeed mass produced, although made from a combination of various styles of heads, bodies, clothes, hairstyles etc and then personalised with moustaches and other variations to facial features, but I did not expected to feel a sense of personality from them. I felt the sensation that they were waiting, in patient expectation, as they have been for over two thousand years.

I think there are two reasons for this – first, that they are life-size. There are several horses – ponies, really. A man was conscripted once he reached the age of 16 and was 4′ 11″ tall, so a 12-hand horse was probably big enough. They looked like horses. But two bronze half-size chariots had also been found – in pieces, requiring careful restoration, so the originals were too fragile to travel and a replica had been made. Half-size horses had been made to pull it and these, though as realistic as the larger ones, looked like models, or toys.

The second reason is that the colour has gone. They were originally fully coloured, and some traces remain, but the effect of the air on the lacquer under the pigment made it lose its stability and the paint vanished – some of the more recently excavated ones still have pink faces as conservation techniques are better now than they were. There is one newly-made model, which has been painted, and he doesn’t look nearly so human.

A correction – there are other factors too. Each man is doing something. He might be an archer, an acrobat, a groom, a civil servant (standing neatly with each hand tucked into the opposite sleeve), and his tool or weapon is long gone, but the position is realistic, not wooden. You feel that they were made with feeling, which is incredible considering how many had to be made. You look into their eyes and you feel a connection – yes, I know I’m being fanciful, but haven’t you looked at the face of a beloved (whether or not by you) teddy bear and seen its personality?

The Emperor Qin was an astonishing man. A complete megalomaniac, and a genius. He made one country out of the various provinces of China within 13 years of ascending the throne of his own province and then imposed a single currency, which was still in use more than 2,000 years later, and a single style of writing, so that even if different people spoke different languages, they could all recognise each other’s written characters. He build vast miles of roads, numerous palaces and connected various sections of walls to make the first Great Wall. Countless people were conscripted or forced into labour and thousands died, but he achieved incredible results. And the vast Terracotta Army was surely proof that he was, in addition, barking mad. He spent much of his reign searching for an elixir of eternal life – it’s possible that one of the concoctions he tried actually poisoned him.

He invented mass production and the assembly line, as well as quality control. Workmen’s names, and those of their supervisors, were marked on objects so that anything sub-standard could be tracked back to the person responsible. Weapons, and everything else, were made to an exact standard, so that if, for example, you broke the point of your lance, you could fetch a replacement tip and know it would fit exactly.

He died suddenly, 11 years after becoming Emperor, and a palace coup brought an end to the dynasty soon after. The weapons held by the warriors were looted from the pits and much damage was done – no model has been found undamaged, as the wooden roofs had collapsed. But, although the country descended into civil war, Qin’s changes lasted. No attempt was made to portray him as a hero – though I think a little more could have been said about the civilization that had existed before he came along – but he was certainly the author of a remarkable and impressive achievement.

11 comments on “Z’s day out

  1. Dash

    Having seen the Terracotta Warriors when I was travelling in China five or six years ago, I have to agree with you Z. They are truly incredible.

  2. Z

    I never wanted to go to China before, but I do now. To see them en masse would be amazing – although standing close up to them here and looking them in the eye is wonderful. You actually could (although the alarms would go off of course) reach out and touch them.

  3. Dandelion

    On a subject I know precious little about, I was going to say if it was a triumph of mass production, that’s all the more remarkable, when you consider the credit that Henry Ford and Andy Warhol got. Then I read on, and I really don’t get what that grumpy reviewer was complaining about.

    It always seems a shame to me that the man-made wonders of this world so often seem to be the result of forced labour.

    Fascinating post, z, thank you for it.

  4. nartina

    I remember seeing a display of them ages ago when in London. Quite impressive and can you imagine how the first archeologists felt when they unearthed the warriors?

  5. badgerdaddy

    I really, really want to go to this. I’m in London in January, I might be able to go then. I’m so excited about it, I think it’s just brilliant that they’re over here. Haven’t been this excited since Hopper at the Tate Modern.

  6. Z

    No, it was a curmudgeonly review, written by someone who’d look at the Taj Mahal and say it’s hackneyed.

    Such uniformity of production – and it was for a purpose, not through lack of imagination – was made without machinery, too. They had moulds and a pattern but it was all hand-made. And beauty as well as craftmanship was built in.

    Martina, I saw the original exhibition too – it must have been eleven or twelve years ago. I was helping with a school party and we went on to the Royal Academy to see a Giacometti exhibition. It was in the British Museum, but in a smaller space.

  7. luckyzmom

    Velly interesting. I have a National Geographic article that I have saved for many years of these figures and have always been fascinated by them. And thanks so much for the info.

  8. Z

    My daughter and son-in-law are going in early January. I bought the book, so that I can pass it on to them to read a bit about it first. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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