Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
The wizened old man at the door, signing my souvenir book with a brush-stroke flourish, looks disturbingly familiar. We make eye contact, exchange hand signs. An interpreter materialises. His name, she tells me, is Yang Zhifa. The old man nods gravely. I am none the wiser.
I have just spent a wintry morning wandering among thousands of larger-than-lifesized terracotta figures in the archaeological pits outside Xi-An in the centre of China, 90 minutes by air from Beijing. The artefacts were created on the orders of the First Emperor to keep him company in the afterlife. That was 2,200 years ago. Today, they are brandished by a Communist regime on the brink of world power.
The encounter with the Emperor’s clay army is so dislocating in place and time, half a world away from home and two centuries before our common era, that normal cultural criteria are suspended and the critical observer is reduced to simple observation. The warriors, fully restored from shattered fragments, stand six or seven feet high in serried ranks, along parallel pits. Each and every one of the figures is strikingly different, in feature, facial expression, top-knot, uniform, body language, attitude. They smile, they scowl, they wink, they look bored; they look as if they once had names. Each figure is signed on the tail of its chainmail by a team leader of the original workforce.
Scholars have identified 87 such signatures. Each supervisor was responsible for ten craftsmen, who laboured under lash and sword as helpless slaves. If artisans slackened, or fell sick, they were killed without mercy. Once the Emperor’s wishes were fulfilled, ‘thousands of craftsmen were buried alive in order to keep the tomb secret,’ reports the historical record, the Book of Han.
What I am experiencing is a mass grave of art makers, a massacre on a scale so vast and unfathomable that images of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong spring irresistibly to mind. Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor who defined China, built its Great Wall and unified its script, was a tyrant of almost modern monstrosity. Three quarters of a million men and women were worked to death on this project, his preposterous assault on posterity. Touching these relics, one senses the madness of absolute power.
I touch them, freshly dug, in a trench that archaeologists have only this year been allowed to open. Inert, fragmented, still to be pieced into human form, they yield the solemn dignity of having lain in the ground undisturbed since before the birth of Christ.
The Chinese are being exceptionally slow in developing the site. It is 34 years since peasants at XiYang village, drilling wells for water, delivered fragments of pottery and bronze weapons to the local party boss. It was at the height of Mao’s final wave of terror, his Cultural Revolution, and no-one knew how the objects would be received on high, how many lives would fall forfeit. Mao, however, had had just turned 80 that winter and was beginning to imagine that he was turning into the First Emperor. The find seemed to confirm his senile delusions.
Archaeologists were rushed in, excavations began, and in 1979 a museum was opened above the first 2,000 square metre dig, displaying to awestruck Chinese eyes 1,087 figures of imperial warriors and horses. A decade elapsed before the next pit was exposed. China was in no hurry. To this day, less than one percent of the 60 square kilometre area has been authorised for excavation and the Emperor’s actual funeral mound has been left completely undisturbed.
Various theories are advanced for this caution. Legend recounts that Qin ran a river of mercury through the palace that lies beneath his mound. Samples of earth from the slopes of the mound have yielded a high mercury content. There could be danger below. Scholars must also contend with an innate Chinese fear of offending the dead, verging on a superstitious terror of the vengeance of Qin. Professor Yun Zhung-yi, the first archaeologist to dig the site in 1974, stands back respectfully before the inert terracotta effigy of a Qin officer and warns me, perhaps in jest, ‘he’s coming soon – on horseback.’
Every Chinese curator I meet supports the policy of slow exposure. ‘No need to rush,’ says one official, ‘we have the eighth wonder of the world.’ Two million tourists a year is as many as the region can accommodate and the potential for continuing discovery and news making is limitless. ‘As director of the museum, I don’t want to find any more,’ says Professor Wu Yongqi, gazing over one of his pale grey pits. ‘There is so much here to conserve. But the people are coming and demanding more.’
That curiosity will only intensify as China rises from prolonged slumber to a world leadership it has not laid claim to since Qin’s own day. Setting aside Mao’s mad imaginings (and not forgetting his murder of 30 million Chinese), the First Emperor’s warriors have become the symbol of an emergent nation and they have been assigned a strike role in Beijing’s diplomatic offensives. Small delegations of a dozen have been crated up and shipped to Washington, Moscow, Rome and other pressure points on the global nerve system.
But the exhibition that is coming to the British Museum in September will be the largest ever seen outside China, a loan of such immensity that its significance, both political and cultural, cannot yet be properly assessed. It amounts to 120 objects– warriors, horses, bureaucrats, bronze birds, musical instruments, decorative pieces, each of unarguable antiquity and bewildering beauty. Viewed en masse, one can easily overlook the intensity of detail.
‘If only one pit had been found with a dozen warriors,’ observes Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, ‘we’d have been talking of the work of a great artist – unknown and ancient, but undeniably great. Here in Xian we have thousands of figures, each with its own special character and we simply don’t know as art historians what to make of it all.’
On the face of the clay warrior between us in the pit is a look of attentive indifference, not unlike one of the Horse Guards who stand outside Buckingham Palace. His eyes are asymmetric ovals, the eyebrows elevated and separated, the moustache severe, the lips sensually cruel. A terrifying thought occurs. Did the slaves, I wonder, create such detailed perfection in fear of their lives, or were they unconsciously seeking to define a purpose to those brief lives that could be snuffed out at any moment? Were these the painters of an early gulag, the musicians of an ancestral Auschwitz? We tremble, MacGregor and I, in that desolate pit, and not just from the bone-piercing frost.
MacGregor, 61, has gone the extra 20,000 miles to make this exhibition happen, flying to Beijing twice in a week on one occasion to convince officials that London was worthier than Paris, Berlin and other big bidders. He blitzed the Chinese with London’s core advantages – its selection as 2012 Olympic city in succession to Beijing; its new Eurostar terminal at Euston that will draw crowds from all over the continent; its access to English-speaking cyberspace; not least its free-entry museums that allow the glories of the ancient world to be seen by the international proletariat without prohibitive expense. Although there is a charge of £12 for the First Emperor show to cover shipping and insurance costs, school parties can book themselves in for free. More than 30,000 tickets have already sold on-line. ‘It’s going to be London’s biggest attraction since Tutankhamun 40 years ago,’ predicts MacGregor.
The First Emperor has propelled the British Museum, willy-nilly, into its own future. Lacking the floor space to stage a public spectacle on this scale, it obtained permission to convert the old Reading Room temporarily into an exhibition hall by installing a false floor above the antique desks where Karl Marx incongruously wrote the political script for modern China. That, however, is just a holding measure.
MacGregor aims to raise £70 to £100 million for a new exhibition building at the western edge of the Bloomsbury dowager, a far pavilion that will owe its existence to the First Emperor. Knowing that nothing squeezes corporate hearts like a blockbuster exhibition, the BM’s shrewd director has timed his proposed extension to musical perfection, anticipating that the great fund-holders of the 21st century will be challenged by the gargantuan ambitions of an archetypal oligarch.
The wizened old man at the door, meanwhile, will not let me go. The interpreter whispers that Yang Zhifa is one of the well-drillers who uncovered the earliest shards of clay. In retirement, he has been given a warm sinecure in the museum shop, signing his name for strangers. Where have I seen him before? An image congeals. I have seen his features on a soldier in the pits, flat and unmoving, reconciled to certain death. Suddenly, the emperor’s warrior becomes a human being like you or me. Suddenly, the past is very near, the world is very small, the fate of millions very real.
260 BC The future First Emperor is born at Handan.
1912 China proclaims republic under Sun Yat-sen.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]