Chinese Warriors in London Unveiling the Terracotta Army

The biggest exhibition outside China of the country's famed terracotta warriors opens this week in London. The man responsible for the clay soldiers was both the founder of China and a monster guilty of many atrocities -- yet his spirit still pervades the huge country.

By Marco Evers


The old Reading Room in the middle of London's British Museum is a crown jewel of Western culture. It is a rotunda with a domed, sky-like ceiling, and it is the birthplace of seminal works of philosophy and culture. Writers like Shaw and Dickens worked here, Lenin read here and it is where Karl Marx wrote "Das Kapital."

A small army has now taken up position beneath this historic ceiling, complete with infantrymen, cavalry, archers and a general. It comes from far away, and it was created for nothing less than eternity. Its creator was a brilliant madman, a conqueror, oppressor, butcher and a terribly successful monster who wanted to defy mortality and rule the universe or, as he called it, "everything under the sky."

He was born 2,265 years ago. As the inventor of the centralized empire, he is indisputably one of the most influential framers of world history, and his spirit continues to pervade Chinese government and society. And yet Ying Zheng is as unknown in Europe as the proud title he adopted in the year 221 B.C., when he united the warring realms between the Yellow River and the Yangtze: "Qin Shihuangdi," or First Godly Emperor of Qin.

Qin is the name of the dynasty that eventually became China, hence the similarity between the two words. Now the British Museum plans to put an end to Western ignorance about the rapidly growing giant that is China. The exhibition "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" opens its doors on Thursday.

The show, the first of its kind outside China, is a magnificent cultural and political achievement. The Chinese authorities have never allowed such a large and impressive array of their famous terracotta warriors to leave the country. The London exhibition is a sign of the country's new openness in the age of globalization, but it is also an expression of unbridled national pride.

The exhibition consists of more than 100 exhibits and 20 life-sized figures, including warriors and other members of this parallel world that was only discovered a few decades ago. The characters were intended to serve the tyrant in the afterlife: officials, an acrobat, a potbellied wrestler, musicians, a stable boy, and an array of animals, including terracotta horses, a goose, a swan and a bronze crane.

Most of the figures are displayed in the room in the way their creators intended: without cages or glass. Museum guards and a state-of-the-art alarm system provide security. This way, visitors can get close enough to the figures to look into their clay eyes and almost count the numbers of hairs in their beards. The extraordinarily realistic figures seem oddly enchanting, practically alive -- proud, loyal and somehow satisfied.

This is the closest that the tourist hordes have ever been allowed to get to the terracotta figures. They were discovered in 1974, when four Chinese farmers searching for water happened upon the tomb, now considered one of the greatest archeological sensations of the 20th century. The Terracotta Army Museum, near Xi'an in northern China, draws in close to two million tourists a year.

The British Museum is preparing for an onslaught of visitors, having already sold a record 100,000 tickets in advance. The show's curators are even considering extending the hours of the seven-month show, which closes on April 6, 2008. The silent army is as moving as it is mysterious, and it gives rise to an ominous question that has even Hiromi Kinoshita, the exhibition's Japanese-Chinese assistant curator, voiced: "Was the army's creator a maniac or just a lunatic?"

A traveling exhibition of copies of the terracotta soldiers drew more than a million visitors in recent years in Germany and Austria. Hamburg's Museum of Ethnology plans to open a smaller exhibition of eight soldiers in October, and the London show is set to travel to Atlanta next year. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach, the Chinese have launched a modern version of the "ping pong diplomacy" it practiced in the 1970s: the terracotta offensive.

In return for the terracotta army, the British have already shipped three major exhibitions to China. The most popular was a show that documented Great Britain's rise to become a world power in the 18th century. The ambitious Chinese see the British story as a prelude to their own ascent, which many predict will turn the current century into the Chinese century.

Ying Zheng, the god-emperor, would be proud of his ambitious people. But the feeling is not necessarily mutual. To this day, many Chinese view Ying Zheng with a mixture of admiration and deep repugnance.

"I believe he was a great man," says young archeologist Janice Li, who the Terracotta Army Museum sent to London to accompany the figures. "He was incredibly ambitious, and his successes have endured. But he was also terribly brutal."

The god-emperor made the curious decision to create an enormous tomb for himself. At 56 square kilometers (roughly 22 square miles), the site is three times as large as Frankfurt Airport. And yet he left behind no memoirs, no poetry penned for his glorification, hardly any written documentation of his life, and not even a portrait. The most important historical source consists of accounts by the historian Sima Qian, although Qian wasn't even born until long after the immortal one's death.

But if Sima Qian is even slightly correct, the first emperor was a pedantic tyrant and mass murderer without compare. He ordered most books destroyed, and had his subjects castrated, mutilated, beheaded, cut in half, quartered or burned to death. He sent close to 300,000 people into the desert, where they were forced to complete the hellish task of building walls around his realm -- the precursors of the Great Wall of China that still stands today.

More than 700,000 forced laborers worked under inhumane conditions to build his necropolis. One of them was Yu, a man from a place called Qi. Like thousands upon thousands of other workers, he died on the job. His epitaph is now on display in London: a shard of terracotta on which Yu wrote that he was performing forced labor in exchange for a prison sentence.

Ying Zheng hated Confucius, the old master, and killed his followers. Instead, he worshipped the philosopher Han Fei and his school of legalism, which emphasized the politics of power. The result was a total, fully organized state that was based on law, control and order, subjugation and punishment. The individual was unimportant, while the interests of the state were first and foremost.

In his subjugated realms, the ruler built about 6,800 kilometers (4,226 miles) of roads, as well as canals. He standardized the written language, weights, measures and the currency, and he established an all-pervasive bureaucracy. His subjects -- he called them "the black-haired ones" -- had no choice but to slave away. Every soldier in his army was a member of a group of five men. If one of them showed cowardice in the face of the enemy, all five were executed. Ying Zheng controlled civilian life with similarly brutal rules.

Assassins tried three times, unsuccessfully, to send the emperor into the afterlife. This probably explains why he became increasingly, and neurotically, concerned about his mortality. He even dispatched expeditions to the mythical island of Penglai, where it was said that immortals lived. When the emissaries returned without the elixir of eternal life, he instructed his alchemists to brew him a potion to ward off death.

These experts, under pressure but apparently without malice, hit upon the idea of giving him mercury. The ruler of the universe died in 210 B.C. at the age of 49. He saw himself as the first of 10,000 god-emperors of Qin, but in fact his dynasty came to an end a short time later under his youngest son.

The tomb of China's great unifier was never finished and was destroyed and burned a few years after his burial. All of Ying Zheng's terracotta warriors were broken into pieces. Archeologists have reassembled the figures using an average of 80 pieces each. Their efforts so far have yielded 1,087 figures.

Yet Ying Zheng is still present in a sense today -- immortal, just as he wished. The type of coin that China's first emperor introduced was used, virtually unchanged, until the 20th century. The gauge that he decreed for carriages is almost identical to that used by China's state-owned railway today. The current system of provinces and counties is very similar to the one he imposed on his realm. Even his concept of an authoritarian, centrally governed bureaucratic state that regulates every detail proved to be immortal. It survived throughout the ensuing dynasties, the Ming and Qing, and then under Mao Zedong -- incidentally a great admirer of Ying Zheng -- and into today's People's Republic.

There is something else the first emperor anticipated that is once again greatly in vogue in China: mass production. The terracotta army is an early masterpiece of series production. Each of the figures consists of a large number of parts that were made separately and then put together. There were individual assembly lines for the hands, arms and heads. At the end, the mass-produced warriors were given their individual features by adding hair, beards, eyebrows and lips. As a result, no two figures are identical.

Archeologists estimate than more than 1,000 people spent about 12 years producing the more than 8,000 terracotta figures. The overseers affixed their seals to many of their products -- a quality control measure. What they created is truly unequaled. A tradition of producing such high-quality sculpture existed neither before nor after the first emperor's time. "It appears out of nowhere," says Jane Portal, the curator of the London exhibition.

And there could still be unknown secrets hidden underground in the first emperor's necropolis. Archeologists keep finding new vaults containing more figures. In fact, it will take a lot longer to explore this complex than it took to build it, partly because the Chinese have adopted a policy of exceptional moderation. The emperor's actual grave, which resembles a squat pyramid, remains unopened. Pomegranate trees grow at the top and couples stroll through the surrounding park. China's founder lies undisturbed, at least 30 meters (98 feet) beneath the surface.

The historian Sima Qian described Ying Zheng's final resting place. According to his account, the first emperor took along a miniature version of his realm into the underworld, filling his burial chamber with palaces, delicacies, the firmament, sacred mountains and rivers of pure mercury.

Despite international support, Chinese archeologists and officials are reluctant to venture into the tomb of the divine emperor, preferring to wait until less invasive digging techniques are developed. But they have already used modern equipment to conduct preliminary analyses, which yielded high concentrations of mercury. Perhaps the terracotta army will prove to be merely the vanguard for a truly sensational find.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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