Art Essays

The First Emperor

Published December 11, 2010

For two thousand years the safest place for China’s cultural heritage has been underground. The Chinese may be proud of having the world’s oldest civilisation but they have also been the greatest destroyers and iconoclasts. In China the present has frequently been at war with the past, as the ruler of the day attempted to eradicate all trace of his predecessors. This was the case with Mao Zedong and it was also true of Qin Shihuang (259-206 BCE), whose conquests transformed a collection of unruly kingdoms into the entity we know today as China.
The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors at the Art Gallery of NSW is a reprise of the 1983 event that remains one of the most successful shows in Australian history. After a year of modest attendances, Director Edmund Capon will be hoping for a repeat of that earlier triumph.
Notwithstanding the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the First Emperor’s burial site, near the north western city of X’ian is the most notable of China’s tourist attractions. This is partly because of the way it brings us face to face with the distant past, partly because of its exceptional state of preservation. Had it been discovered a decade earlier the story would have been different.
Local farmers had often dug up fragments of pottery but the great discovery dates from 1974, when a group of brothers trying to sink a well uncovered a subterranean chamber containing six thousand terracotta warriors. The find was reported to the local authorities and written up by a visiting journalist in a newsletter that circulated only among high officials.
The story excited the interest of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, one of the reviled Gang of Four, who in 1966 unleashed the reign of terror we call the Cultural Revolution. This mass movement attracted an army of fanatical teenagers determined to wipe out anything “old”. Along with a campaign of murder and intimidation, the Red Guards made a point of destroying anything associated with the past, including temples, memorials, libraries and museums.
Even before the Cultural Revolution, China had been adept at undermining its own legacy. During the Great Leap Forward of 1958, artifacts in bronze and iron were melted down in a futile attempt to increase steel production. As Mao’s economic policies sent the country into ruin, the government quietly sold off works of art to international dealers at rock bottom prices.
Had the warriors been discovered in the early phase of the Cultural Revolution it might have heralded an orgy of destruction, but by 1974 the force of the movement was spent. The discovery coincided with a campaign to re-evaluate the First Emperor, who had been traditionally seen as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but was now hailed as “a vigorous revolutionary”. He was praised for breaking down the old feudal system and instituting the prototype of a totalitarian society. The unification of China provided justification for his barbarous acts.
Does this sound familiar? In one of his most infamous public pronouncements, in May 1958, Mao had compared himself with Qin Shihuang.
The First Emperor – how great was he really? He buried only 460 Confucian scholars. We have buried forty-six thousand… You democrats scold us for being like the First Emperor. You are wrong. We are a hundred times worse than him.
History would bear out the Chairman’s boasts. The final tally of those who died as a direct or indirect result of Mao’s policies is in the tens of millions.
During the Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956-57, he encouraged intellectuals to speak out and criticise the Party. Within a year his critics found themselves imprisoned, or sent to “learn from the peasants” in the remote provinces.
This is how Mao “buried” the scholars. Qin Shihuang is believed to have taken a more literal approach, burying his victims alive. Yet this is not proven, hinging on one word of uncertain interpretation in the Records of the Grand Historian. The same ambiguity applies to the First Emperor’s other most notorious deed: the burning of the books. There were so few copies of these ‘books’ – really inscriptions on bamboo slats – that it was probably not the holocaust we imagine. Copies of everything were retained in an imperial library, only to be destroyed when the palace was looted by its conquerors.
Mao’s regime weirdly reproduced the ancient dispute between Confucians, who believed in a state ruled by ethics, and Legalists, who took a carrot-and-stick approach to government. The Gang of Four represented the Legalists, while figures such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping played the role of Confucians. The moral in both instances is that Legalism may enjoy fantastic short-term success, but ultimately brings about its own collapse. So it has proven with most of the twentieth century’s totalitarian states.
By any standards, Qin Shihuang’s era was one of extraordinary cruelty. Legalism required punishments to be administered in a clinical manner: the harsher the sentence, the greater the deterrent value. People were put to death for the most trifling offences, or simply through bad luck. Offenders might be mutilated and castrated before being beheaded. They were cut in half at the waist, or torn limb from limb by chariots. About the best one could hope for was a quick death by drinking poison.
Almost all the leading generals and political figures seem to have died violently. The precariousness of life encouraged the most extreme acts. If a man had been sentenced to death it was natural that his extended family should die as well, usually in the same brutal fashion. When Qin Shihuang’s son, Huhai succeeded to the throne, by means of a conspiracy, he had all his brothers and sisters executed.
Despite his commitment to Legalist pragmatism, Qin Shihuang was intensely superstitious and anxious to find an elixir of immortality. He can’t have been very confident of success because the preparation of his tomb occupied hundreds of thousands of workers for many years. The artifacts on display at the AGNSW give the merest hint of the lavish scale of his final resting place. Ten warriors have travelled to Sydney, but there are more than 8,000 in total, and roughly 1,300 figures of all kinds. We are seeing two exact replicas of the horses and chariots excavated from the pit because the originals are too precious to leave China. The site occupies some 56 square kilometers. Everything is on a stupendous scale, culminating in the tomb of the Emperor himself, which remains undisturbed under a grassy mound. Archaeologists are gradually working their way towards the tomb, but we know nothing of its state of preservation.
In the meantime the inexorable progress of excavation is producing a stream of remarkable discoveries, such as chamber full of oversized suits of armour made entirely out of limestone tiles, and a set of bronze birds, included as part of an otherworldly pleasure garden.
The AGNSW exhibition contains a representative selection of all these artifacts, supplemented with smaller items that fill in the details of Qin culture. The presentation, by architect, Richard Johnson, sets a new standard for exhibition design in this country, with the warriors displayed behind a low wall that allows us to get up close and see the statues with exceptional clarity.
The most brilliant detail may be sampled at the end of the vitrine that contains the bronze birds. Looking down into this case one sees the birds and a nearby chariot perfectly reproduced, as if at the bottom of a dark pit. It’s all done with mirrors, as they say, but it conveys the feeling of entombment that is lost when these pieces are taken out of context and sent travelling.
This is not a big show, but the quality of work and the skill of the display will satisfy the most demanding viewers. The unforgettable moment is probably the close encounter with the life-sized terracotta warriors, each of them subtly individualised through costume, hairstyle and facial expression. Beyond the physical confrontation we are asked to come to terms with a view of the afterlife that strictly mirrors an earthly dictatorship. The Emperor’s every comfort and security has been reproduced. It even seems he will be fighting the same battles in heaven, requiring a massive army for protection and conquest. It’s chilling to realise that Qin Shihuang aimed to subjugate humanity for all eternity, with a will to power so absolute it transcends death itself.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 11, 2010
The First Emperor: China’s Entombed Warriors
Art Gallery of NSW, December 2, 2010 until March 13, 2011