Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Terracotta Servants

A Chinese professor of ancient history has an interesting theory on why the terracotta "warriors" near Xi'an were built.

From Xinhua:

XI'AN, (Xinhua) -- A Chinese history academic is refuting the modern interpretation of the First Emperor's terracotta army, saying the figures are servants and bodyguards, instead of warriors as many people believe.

"The clay figures should be taken as copies of the emperor's guards and servants," said Liu Jiusheng, associate professor of history at Shaanxi Normal University. "Their layout in the pits, with chariots and horses, represented grand ceremonies with the emperor's presence."

Many people believe the 2,200-year-old terracotta army, buried around the mausoleum of Qin Dynasty's first emperor about 35 km east of Xi'an, indicated the emperor had wanted the clay warriors to help him rule in the afterlife.

The army is known to most Chinese people as the "terracotta warriors and horses".

Liu, an expert on Qin (221-207 B.C.) history who has been studying the terracotta army for more than 20 years, ruled out the hypothesis.

"It's against the Chinese tradition and value systems to bury clay warriors in imperial mausoleums -- the Chinese traditionally value peace in the afterlife," Liu said.

In his April, 2009, publication on terracotta research, Liu said the clay figures were most likely modeled after imperial court officials, servants and bodyguards, all of whom were people of high social status. "Men of humble origin or ordinary soldiers couldn't have got so close to the emperor, even in his mausoleum."

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The article goes on to say that "Liu's argument is still not widely accepted." This may be because it is dead wrong. I don't really know. I do find the rather bold assertion he's made to be an amusing one though.

For those not too familiar with the terracotta "warriors" near Xi'an, here are a few basics on the place.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang began building the army of terracotta figures in 210 BC in an area about an hour's drive east of Xi'an. In addition to building this massive army, Qin is also famous for beginning the construction of the Great Wall, standardizing weights and measures and currency, and for unifying "China" for the first time.

One aspect of his life and the terracotta army that I find particularly remarkable is his love of mercury. Mystics back at that time period told him that ingesting mercury would give him everlasting life. He started regularly getting acquainted with the liquid metal and obviously lost his mind in doing so. Mercury-induced psychosis and mania would go a long way in explaining why the guy went to the trouble of spending thirty-six years building a massive army of life-like people. His tomb, which has not been unearthed, supposedy has rivers of mercury flowing through the place.

Seeing the terracotta army with these things in mind makes the visit a very enjoyable experience. The warriors, residing beneath airport hangar-like structures, are not that visually stunning. But taking in the warriors in conjunction with the bizarre history surrounding the construction of the site and the man responsible truly do make it a worthwhile place to visit.

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