The Long March

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Kneeling Archer, Qin Dynasty, 221-206 B.C. / © WANG DA-GANG

Over the weekend I read The Terra Cotta Army by John Man, a British travel writer and historian. It’s about the thousands of life size clay soldiers and other figures prepared for the tomb of China’s First Emperor in the 3rd century B.C. Last year China shipped out about 20 of them on a tour that began at the British Museum, which is where I saw them. Last week they moved on to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. (Same figures but a different show from the one in London.)

Man disputes any idea that the warriors, which were forged to serve the Emperor in the next world, could be portraits of actual soldiers. You could get that impression because the faces are so varied, and the more or less human scale — ordinary soldiers average 5’10”, officers average 6’3″ — gives them a very persuasive presence. But in the period 230 to 210 B.C., which is roughly when the figures were produced, Chinese art hadn’t developed the idea of individual portraiture. And in any event the last thing that would be wanted in a replica army, where teamwork and obedience were valued above all things, would be representations of individuality.

So the warriors represent types, but the types have been almost infinitely varied within a prescribed range. (Man says for instance that there are a dozen different face shapes, combined wiith varieties of eyebrow, moustache, hair, beard and lips.) What they also represent is an a system of mass production unlike anything I know of in the West prior to the shipyards of Venice in the 15th century. There are more than 6000 of the figures, forged in pieces and then put together on a kind of ancient precursor of the assembly line.

That may help to explain why, when I was looking them over in London last year, I found myself thinking about this.